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Forbes: Leon Panetta Knows Best — Identify Needs First

For the past several months, momentum has steadily increased behind efforts to resolve the federal government’s budget woes on the backs of the Department of Defense.

Indeed, the axes hacking indiscriminately at the defense budget have been many: long-term caps imposed by the Budget Control Act, the looming specter of blind sequestration and, into this week, the threat of further cuts in a potential super committee agreement.

Consequently, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is now scrambling to identify weapons systems that can be cut, troops that can be withdrawn from forward stations across Europe and reductions in our deterrent-driven nuclear arsenal as ways to meet these arbitrary fiscal benchmarks.

Between now and February, when President Barack Obama submits his budget proposal to Congress, the Pentagon has the unenviable task of matching strategy to force structure and budget — none of which have been defined yet. This is hardly a cogent strategy for protecting the nation, assuring our allies and defending vital interests around the globe.

Asking “What can we cut?” is the wrong place to start. Instead, we first need to define the threats we face and the United States’ national security goals. Then our military leaders need the opportunity to assess how we address those threats and determine the resources required. Once we know the strategy and means needed to meet it, it is incumbent upon Congress to fulfill its primary constitutional charge of finding the means to provide these necessary resources.

Recently, Panetta testified before the House Armed Services Committee that before cutting $465 billion from defense over the next decade, “the better approach would have been to develop the strategy to be able to discuss exactly what we need, determine what the resources would be in order to meet that strategy, and then come to you and say this is what we need in order to do the job.”

He went further, stating that he agreed it would be reckless, irresponsible and dangerous to make another $600 billion in cuts to defense before performing a full strategic review.

Some argue that the Pentagon is a bloated organization rife with unneeded programs and wasted funding. Before accepting these broad assertions and effectively dismantling the military, consider our force’s current state.

By skipping a generation of modernization in the 1990s and continually deferring maintenance to meet operational requirements over the past decade, we have developed a force replete with aging equipment and dwindling numbers.

The consequences? The average age of Navy ships is 20 years. Our Air Force bombers are 34 years old on average and the Marine’s Amphibious Assault Vehicles average 35 years old. In the past four years, inspection failures for Navy ships have nearly tripled. Currently, one of five ships inspected is either unfit for combat or severely degraded. A majority of the Navy’s deployed aircraft are unable to accomplish all assigned missions. Marine Corps stockpiles of critical equipment such as radios, small arms and generators face severe shortages. More than one-third of active Army units have insufficient personnel to perform their missions; an even higher percentage of units in the Reserve face similar challenges.

Though we are drawing down our forces in the Middle East, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Panetta have been careful to warn that global demands on U.S. forces are not diminishing, particularly as our focus shifts to the Asia Pacific.

To that end, the Pentagon is finalizing its “AirSea Battle” concept that will define how we ensure continued access to the Asia Pacific region amid a rising China that aspires to assert its regional military and economic power, excluding the United States.

Undermining the military’s future ability to project power and embrace a 21st-century readiness posture in the Asia Pacific by blindly slashing defense spending is not only unwise, it is downright dangerous.

All this is not to say there isn’t room for improvement in financial and acquisition management within the Department of Defense.

Panetta, at the urging of Congress, has directed his department to accelerate plans to get its financial books in order. He has accelerated the timeline for a clean audit of all the department’s receipts, expenditures and obligations a full three years ahead of the Congressionally mandated deadline. This will provide Congress and taxpayers an unprecedented ability to eliminate inefficiency, waste and fraud.

Starting the discussion with budget caps and program cuts puts the cart before the horse. While this might bring short-term savings, history tells us it will have significant long-term costs in both American lives and treasure.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) is chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness.

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