WASHINGTON – The United States, facing economic challenges and deep political divides at home, can’t allow itself falter in Iraq and Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday in the first major policy speech of his term.
The country also must keep the broader war in terrorism in its sights, he said.
“[We] must continue to maintain the relentless pressure we’ve applied on al-Qaida and its affiliates everywhere in the world,” Panetta said, citing centers of conflict from North Africa to Pakistan.
Among America’s other security challenges are states such as Iran and North Korea that have nuclear ambitions, along with the rising threat of cyberattacks targeting the United States.
The United States also has to contend with the growing might of China, he said.
“The rise of China will continue to shape the international system, and we will have to stay competitive and reassure our allies in the region,” he said. “That means continuing to project our power and maintaining forward-deployed forces in the Asia-Pacific region.“
Beneath all the challenges lies the prospect of budget cuts of more than $450 billion in the coming decade, Panetta said. Wisely carried out, the U.S. military will remain mighty, he said.
“This will be an extremely agile, deployable force capable of responding to a growing variety of threats – from counterterrorism to major combat operations anywhere in the world,” Panetta said. “It will also be a force capable of quickly reacting to surprise, unforeseen contingencies, and constantly adapting enemies that seek to frustrate our advantages.”
To keep the U.S. military strong in the face of budget cuts, Panetta said he would institute efficiency measures that could save $60 billion in coming years on top of $150 billion in savings identified by his predecessor, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Military pay and benefits – grandfathered when possible for current troops – must be scrutinized as well for savings, he said.
The overall size of the military will fall, he said, and it will have to learn to operate more cheaply, even if that means deploying technologies that aren’t always cutting edge.
Congress must do its part as well, Panetta declared, devising a budget-cutting solution that heads off automatic, across-the-board cuts that would tear $1 trillion out of Pentagon budgets over a decade.