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WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said military leaders likely will have to consider changes to the military retirement system in coming years, but he vowed that none of those proposals will upset the benefits promised to those already serving.

“When we’re talking about [plans calling for] billions in defense cuts, I’ve got to put everything on the table, including retirement,” he told lawmakers at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday. “But I have made it clear that we cannot break faith with the men and women serving today. We are going to stand by the promises we made to them.”

Last month, the White House unveiled a wide-ranging deficit reduction plan that included plans to re-examine the military retirement system, calling the current 20-year requirement “out of line with most other government or private retirement plans.”

In August, officials from the Defense Business Board outlined more specific plans to overhaul how military retirees are paid, abandoning the 20-year service target in favor of a 401(k)-style plan that would allow partial payout for those who serve as little as 10 years.

Veterans groups largely panned the ideas, saying active-duty personnel reconsider their long-term career plans.

Panetta said no decisions have been made on changes to retirement benefits. He acknowledged the criticism and concern over potential changes, but said he is still open to the president’s plan to look into changes that could benefit mid-career troops.

But, he repeated to lawmakers, that he would not support any decisions that reduce or change retirement benefits for those who have already served 20 years, or those in the service today.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey was even more blunt in his assessment to lawmakers: “I am adamantly opposed to changing the retirement system for those who are currently serving.”

Dempsey said comparisons of military retirement benefits to civilian plans are ill-informed, because of the sacrifices military members make during their careers. But he said he would be open to ideas from defense experts on how to improve the system.

Twitter: @LeoShane

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