(Updates with comments by Panetta starting in third paragraph.)
June 9 (Bloomberg) -- The days of “large growth, unlimited defense budgets are over,” Leon Panetta, said in testimony during his confirmation hearing to become U.S. defense secretary.
“Our challenge will be to design budgets that eliminate wasteful and duplicative spending while protecting those core elements that we absolutely need for our nation’s defense,” he said to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Panetta said he shares the concern of departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates “about the possibility of hollowing out our force.”
“I share his concern about automatic, across-the-board cuts,” he said in his confirmation hearing to succeed Gates. He warned about viewing defense spending cuts as the solution to the nation’s deficit. “Defense is by no means the causes of the huge deficits we are facing today,” he said.
He faced repeated questions about the how he views the goal of the Pentagon’s comprehensive strategic review of the implications of the White House’s goal of cutting $400 billion over 12 years.
Panetta, the current CIA chief, received a warm welcome from committee members of both parties. Panetta has “extraordinary qualifications” for the job, said Arizona Senator John McCain, the committee’s ranking Republican.
South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham called him the “linchpin” of an “A+ national security team.”
Panetta, when pressed about acquisition reform and weapons systems, said he will watch costs on the Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 fighter jet program “very closely” if confirmed.
“We have to take a very hard look at all weapons systems to make sure they are cost-effective,” he said.
One of those systems is the General Electric Co. alternate engine for the F-35 that Gates has said repeatedly is unnecessary. Panetta said he supports canceling that program.
In his opening remarks, Panetta said the U.S. has moved from the Cold War to face a “blizzard of threats.”
Citing Iran, he said he would address Iran’s nuclear activities in closed session. Still, “there’s no question they continue to try to develop some kind of nuclear capability,” he said.
‘Next Pearl Harbor’
In terms of new threats, the U.S. faces the “real possibility” of a surprise cyber attack, he said.
“The next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a cyber attack that cripples our power systems, our grid, our security systems, our financial systems, our governmental systems,” Panetta told the panel.
“This is a real possibility in today’s world,” he said. “As a result, I think we have to aggressively be able to counter that. It is going to take both defensive measures as well as aggressive measures to deal with it.”
In his written responses to the panel and in testimony, Panetta cited as top security priorities prevailing in Iraq and Afghanistan against al-Qaeda, keeping weapons of mass destruction from terrorists and “rogue nations,” preparing for future conflicts, preserving the U.S. military’s combat prowess and continuing the search for efficiencies that Gates has initiated -- “which will be crucial in this time of budget constraints.”
On Libya, Panetta testified that Muammar Qaddafi staying in Libya would send “a terrible signal” to other countries that the U.S. word “isn’t worth very much.”
Panetta said it appeared that NATO attacks have “significantly weakened” Qaddafi’s regime.
On Iraq, Panetta said the White House should “seriously consider” keeping some U.S. troops in Iraq after the December withdrawal date if requested by the Iraqi government.
On Afghanistan, he declined to endorse any figures for an early withdrawal of some of the 100,000 U.S. troops there, deferring to the White House and Gates. Some withdrawals are expected next month.
Panetta, 72, is a California Democrat who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993 and then as budget director and White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration. He has been director of the Central Intelligence Agency since February 2009. He would succeed Gates, the lone holdover in Obama’s cabinet from the George W. Bush administration.
Panetta’s experience as chairman of the House Budget Committee and as director of the Office of Management and Budget would position him as defense secretary to implement President Barack Obama’s plan to cut $400 billion in national security spending through 2023. Panetta said he’d have a “large” role in the review.
Panetta, in his written answers, said he expects that “difficult choices will have to be made” to rein in defense spending and reduce the federal deficit.
Heritage Foundation defense analyst Mackenzie Eaglen said in an e-mail before the hearing that, “given that this nomination is a foregone conclusion, members are really only looking out for any ideological red flags and whether Panetta believes it is ‘when and how,’ not ‘if,’ we cut defense by up to $400 billion before the strategy review is completed.”
“The United States must continue to monitor carefully North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and missile development,” said Panetta promising as defense secretary to work closely with allies in that effort.
He also promised to support improvements in the U.S. missile defense program.
“The United States is currently protected against the threat of a limited intercontinental ballistic missile attack from states like North Korea and Iran,” Panetta said. “It is important we maintain this advantage by continuing to improve the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system” that’s deployed in Alaska and California, he said.
The U.S. ground-based system of 30 interceptors is managed by Boeing Co., and supported by Northrop Grumman Corp. and Raytheon Co. Raytheon builds the hit-to-kill warhead that sits on top of 30 Orbital Sciences Corp. interceptors in Alaska and California.
In his testimony, Panetta said that the U.S. and Pakistan need to strengthen ties to combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, though he said the relationship is frustrating.
Panetta said that improvements have been made in Afghan security ahead of Obama’s announcement to begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
The CIA chief indicated he opposes waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning, as an interrogation method for terrorism suspects, as was done with alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
--With assistance from David Lerman in Washington. Editors: Terry Atlas, Bob Drummond
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