Heed Panetta’s wisdom on defense spending

The following editorial first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:

Leon Panetta knows budgets.

The respected California native was chairman of the House Budget Committee during his final four years in Congress, director of the Office of Management and Budget in 1993 and 1994 and President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994 to 1997.

So when Panetta, in his first Pentagon news conference since becoming secretary of defense, warned that further military spending cuts beyond the $350 billion already proposed by President Barack Obama would have dire consequences, we hope Congress was listening.

It should be clear that the $1.2 trillion the nation has squandered on overseas military operations since Sept. 11, 2001, has greatly contributed to the current fiscal crisis. But Congress shouldn’t compound that mistake by haphazardly imposing defense reductions that could do irreparable harm to national security. The nation tried imposing across-the-board cuts after the Vietnam War. The ill-advised move left U.S. military operations underfunded for years relative to their missions and responsibilities.

U.S. defense policy must be matched with a prudent budget and a smarter strategy.

The better approach for Panetta and the president is to wind down foreign military operations as quickly as possible and perform a long overdue overhaul of the nation’s broken weapons procurement system. The United States can no longer afford to keep spending scarce taxpayer funds on outdated weapons systems and overpriced equipment.

Panetta has already slammed the Pentagon for its inability to “produce a financial statement that passes all financial audit standards.” The Department of Defense has set a goal to conduct and pass an audit by 2017. Panetta calls that “unacceptable,” and he should stand firm on his demand for a successful audit as soon as possible.

The former Monterey congressman and CIA chief is uniquely positioned to implement long overdue institutional changes. It’s rare to find a leader who has the trust of Republicans, Democrats and national security agencies.

That should allow him to lead the charge on reforming the procurement system. Then he and the president can present Congress with a slimmed-down budget proposal that matches the Defense Department’s mission.

For more than 60 years, presidential and congressional commissions have been calling on the military to curb the waste, fraud and excessive costs that permeate its procurement system. Do the Hoover Commission (1949) or Packard Commission (1986) ring any bells?

One of the worst examples to come to light is the $32 billion the Army has spent since 1995 on abandoned weapons systems. A total of 22 programs have been canceled in that time, including the $6 billion, 20-year Comanche helicopter effort that never got off the ground.

Panetta, 73, has been working his magic in Washington for 45 years. If he can force the military to match a sleeker, smarter procurement program with a streamlined budget, that will be his greatest legacy of all.


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