Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Thursday warned Congress that automatic cuts in defense spending would force the Pentagon to reduce its presence in some trouble spots, including Africa, a hotbed of al Qaeda franchise groups.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, the defense chief began providing details about the likely effects if Congress‘ deficit-reduction supercommittee fails to reach a consensus, which would prompt automatic, across-the-board cuts.
He said nearly $500 billion in defense cuts already being imposed are “taking us to the edge.” Another $500 billion would be “truly devastating,” he added.
Asked by Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the committee’s ranking Democrat, to give examples of the increased risks, Mr. Panetta said the Pentagon presumably would want to keep robust forward-deployed troops, ships and warplanes in the Pacific region to counter China and in the Middle East, where al Qaeda’s is based and Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.
“Then, just by virtue of the numbers that we’re dealing with, we will probably have to reduce our presence elsewhere, presence perhaps in Latin America, presence in Africa,” Mr. Panetta said. “And so, if you’re talking about risk, you know, part of the risk would be having less of a presence in those areas.”
“Our presence on the African continent is part of our network of building partners, of gaining intelligence,” Gen. Dempsey said. “And then when targeting approaches or targeting reaches the level of refinement, we can act on it.
“But we have to be networked against the specific threat you’re talking about, and part of that requires our presence in Africa.”
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Pentagon has increased significantly its land, sea and air presence in Africa, creating the first Africa Command. This elevated the continent’s importance with the Pacific, Middle East and Europe, which are designated for distinct U.S. military headquarters and forces.
The Pentagon is developing its fiscal 2013 budget, which goes to Congress in February. But defense officials say they cannot make all final decisions on which weapons to cancel or active forces to cut until Congress makes final deficit decisions this year.
A Republican staff report to Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, says a $1 trillion reduction would mean the Army and Marine Corps would have to shed 200,000 troops.
The report also says a “worst case” scenario would be defense spending plummeting from a planned $596 billion in 2013 to $491 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2012.