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WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reminded lawmakers Thursday that the military is battling terrorists worldwide, waging two overseas wars, monitoring Iran and China, and struggling with emerging cyberthreats.

And yet amid all that, the fight he’s most focused on is with budget cutters on Capitol Hill.

Testifying as part of a series of House hearings on lessons learned from 10 years at war, Panetta answered more questions on the future of the military than on the past, and focused most of his comments on the prospect of deep defense cuts from the current congressional budget review.

White House and congressional officials have approved roughly $460 billion in defense spending cuts over the next decade, and Panetta said further cuts “would do catastrophic damage to our military, hollowing out the force and degrading its ability to protect the country.”

He called a sequester plan — which would impose almost $1 trillion in defense cuts, if other solutions cannot be found by lawmakers — a “blind, mindless formula ... a gun being put to the head of Congress.”

The comments came as House Armed Services Committee leaders from both parties continued their months-long push to protect military funding. HASC ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., called the idea of $1 trillion in total defense cuts “insane” and vowed to fight against it. And committee chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said that “the military cannot be exempt from fiscal belt-tightening,” but added that “defense has contributed more than half of the deficit-reduction measures taken to date.”

In a letter sent Thursday to the supercommittee members conducting the budget review, McKeon and other HASC Republicans offered a simple recommendation for further funding cuts: Nothing from defense.

Military retirement, military health care, personnel end strength and family support programs are too valuable, they argued.

Veterans groups have echoed that message. On Wednesday, the American Legion passed a resolution calling for Congress and the White House to “halt efforts to reduce the national defense budget from its current level.”

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, making his first appearance before Congress as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said military leaders have learned from the last decade that they need to be more adaptable and cost-conscious, valuing coalition building and innovative strategies over expensive weapons systems. But he said that “becoming lean and efficient will only get us so far, and we will have to make hard choices that balance risk” if the deeper cuts are enacted.

Panetta said that could mean reductions in overseas military presence, including a drawdown in Europe, the Pacific, Africa and other regions.

Even as the participants focused on future defense issues, Thursday’s hearing was interrupted by more immediate roadblocks. Anti-war protesters flustered Panetta and lawmakers by shouting down proceedings multiple times, including one man who called the defense secretary a “murderer” while being carried out of the room by Capitol Police.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane


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