Bigger defense cuts triggered by failed deficit reduction negotiations would have "devastating" effects on the nation's security, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday.
In a rare joint appearance at the National Defense University, Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made their case for limiting their budgets' exposure to the political battles in Congress over identifying additional ways of reduce future government spending.
Panetta said the Pentagon is prepared to make $350 billion in cuts over the next 10 years, as agreed by Congress. But he warned of dangers to the national defense if bigger reductions are required.
The deficit compromise reached between the White House and Congress set up a special bipartisan committee to draft legislation to find more government cuts. If the committee cannot agree on a deficit-reduction plan by year's end or if Congress rejects its proposal, it would trigger some $500 billion in additional reductions in projected national security spending.
"This kind of massive cut across the board — which would literally double the number of cuts that we're confronting — that would have devastating effects on our national defense; it would have devastating effects on certainly the State Department," Panetta said.
Clinton said Americans should understand that in addition to preserving the nation's military strength, it is in the nation's security interests to maintain the State Department's role in diplomacy and development. She suggested that the political stalemate over spending cuts has put that in jeopardy.
"It does cast a pall over our ability to project the kind of security interests that are in America's interests," she said. "This is not about the Defense Department or the State Department ... This is about the United States of America. And we need to have a responsible conversation about how we are going to prepare ourselves for the future."
Panetta was asked about news reports that the Pentagon is considering reducing military retirement benefits, which, along with military health costs, have ballooned in recent years.
Though those payments have been considered sacrosanct — part of the bargain the nation makes with those who protect it — the economic and debt crises have put those issues squarely in the crosshairs. A private sector advisory panel last month drafted a plan to eliminate the current system under which those who retire with 20 years of service get immediate, lifetime payments of some 50 percent of their salaries and those with less than 20 years get nothing.
Though the report is not complete and it is non-binding at any rate, the board recommends the system be scrapped and replaced with a 401K-type defined contribution plan, grandfathering in the disabled and retirees.
"It's the kind of thing you have to consider," Panetta said. He quickly added that it must have a grandfather clause so the government does not "break faith" with the military force.
Clinton and Panetta were responding to questions posed by Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, and by members of the National Defense University audience, which included members of the military and civilian officials.
Asked about the situation in Libya, Panetta said the anti-Gadhafi forces are on the move toward Tripoli and "regime forces are weakened."
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.