Large new cuts in defense spending would "terribly weaken" U.S. national security, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday as he and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton used a rare joint interview to argue that the nation cannot afford to keep playing partisan chicken with its finances.
Panetta expressed optimism about progress by American-led forces against the Taliban in Afghanistan and by NATO forces in support of anti-government rebels in Libya. He cited those conflicts as examples of why severe cuts to spending on defense and diplomacy would be dangerous.
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 recent 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 military strength, it is in the nation's security interests to maintain the State Department's role in diplomacy and development.
"This is not about the Defense Department or the State Department This is about the United States of America," she said.
She and Panetta appeared together at National Defense University in an interview conducted by Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
Panetta was asked about news reports that the Pentagon was considering reducing military retirement benefits.
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, ramping up to 87.5 percent for 35 years of service. Those with less than 20 years get nothing.
The board recommended the system be scrapped and replaced with a 401(k)-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.