It's hard to miss the irony: Leon Panetta, as President Clinton's budget guru, backed billions of dollars in Pentagon cuts. Now, as secretary of defense, he's warning that the U.S. could become a "paper tiger" if his department's budget is further reduced.
On Monday, Panetta warned members of Congress that if the bipartisan budget supercommittee fails to agree on a plan, a set of automatic cuts would amount to "doomsday" for the military. In a letter to the ranking Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain of Arizona, Panetta said the automatic cuts would roll back ground forces to 1940 levels, leaving the Navy with a fleet the size of the one in 1915 and reducing the Air Force to its smallest size ever.
Just eight months earlier, when then-CIA Director Panetta was tapped to replace Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, The Associated Press observed that the move was "a clear signal that the White House perceives the nation's deficit crisis, not the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as its toughest challenge."
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, thinks it's a simple illustration of an old adage: Where you stand depends on where you sit.
"It's ironic, yes, but it's not the first time it's happened," said Korb, who served as assistant defense secretary under Caspar Weinberger.
Weinberger, like Panetta, had made the transition from the head of the Office of Management and Budget (during the Nixon administration) to the Department of Defense under President Ronald Reagan a decade later.
Despite his years of trying to rein in red ink, Secretary of Defense Weinberger "was exactly like Secretary Panetta, fighting every potential reduction and offering all these apocalyptic scenarios if he didn't get what he wanted," said Korb.
Panetta's warning reflects a worst-case scenario of $1 trillion over 10 years, Korb said. That would still leave defense spending at 2007 levels, in a budget that has doubled since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said.
Todd Harrison, a fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, thinks that if Panetta's dire warnings are meant by the White House to prod the supercommittee into a decision to forestall the cuts, it could backfire.
"The whole purpose of sequestration was to be a deterrent — it was to scare the supercommittee into agreement. The problem, though, is that if you ratchet up the rhetoric too high and you use too much hyperbole, that deterrent loses its credibility," Harrison said.
He said the military needs to look at reducing systems that played important roles in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but are no longer needed, such as the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle program and unmanned aerial vehicles that are only effective in environments where U.S. forces enjoy air superiority.
"Over the past decade ... the procurement budget nearly doubled and the research and development budget went up two-thirds," Harrison said. "A lot of that spending was a direct result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Korb eyes programs that date back even further to the days of the Cold War. The U.S. still has far too many nuclear weapons and the Navy is larger than the next 13 navies in the world combined, he said.
Strategic Russian Roulette?
But Michael O'Hanlon, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he has closely scrutinized defense procurements, and there's little room to cut.
O'Hanlon, who is also the author of The Wounded Giant: America's Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity, said even with a dramatic restructuring of forces, he still has "a pretty hard time getting much beyond" the $400 billion in cuts over 10 years that are already locked in.
"There are some myths out there that it's easy to do, but those myths are just flat wrong," he said.
If the sequestration hatchet strikes, the U.S. will be forced into what O'Hanlon calls "strategic Russian roulette."
"In broad strategic terms, you're going to have to start choosing which crucial interests you defend," he said. "Between the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf, you're going to have to gamble that one of them is not going to be subject to unrest or challenge by any of our adversaries or competitors."
Even so, O'Hanlon has identified the need for "more clever, economical ways" to create savings. Along with the other experts, he would scale back war planning for only one regional conflict at a time, with contingencies for additional missions. He has also proposed flying crews in and out while leaving naval ships on station, for as long as perhaps two years at a stretch.
Cindy Williams, a research scientist at the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the trend toward a leaner military is inevitable.
"Even if the [sequestration] triggers don't kick in, Congress and the administration are going to be coming back to the well looking for additional cuts over the next three or four years," she said.
The Pentagon, she said, needs to figure out how big it is going to be and how to structure itself within those limits.
"Then, once it decides that, then it can decide, for example, that it has to cut one-quarter of the personnel in uniform and then trim back procurement programs to make them commensurate with the size of the new force."