Defense budget cuts inevitable, says former defense secretary

With the nation worn down by a decade of war and fraught with debt that weighs on national security, the question is not whether the Defense Department will be cut or even by how much — the question is how to do it best and most responsibly, according to former Defense Secretary William Cohen.

“There are ways to go about cutting the defense budget, and we will have to. Our force structure under the circumstances is just not sustainable,” said Cohen, who spoke Sept. 29 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

He added that reducing the U.S. military force must be non-negotiable — playing politics in the budget-making process will make the situation much worse.

“We can have a smaller force — we have to have a smaller force," he said. "We can’t do more with less. We can’t do as much with less. The question is, can we do less with less? The answer is, we’ll have to. We can construct a force that is still very powerful, very efficient and very expeditionary.

Current DOD "Secretary [Leon] Panetta has said he will not reign over a hollow military, but these are the forces at work in terms of what will take place up on Capitol Hill unless we act with some wisdom here," Cohen said. "There are tough choices, but they can be wise ones.”

Cohen highlighted savings achieved by the Base Realignment and Closure Act and called for more by reforming military retirement benefits and health care.

He also warned it may be dangerous to push ahead with the same strategies as in the past.

“We’re going through some harder times right now, but the real issue is…political," he said. "It’s confidence, it’s a question of leadership, and I think the danger for us is that we’ll do what we’ve done in the past — and we’ll cut research, development, training and education, and we’ll cut modernization. We’ll fail to invest in the future; and we will continue to spend more on personnel to the point where we hollow out the force. And that’s one of the great dangers we face.”

Cohen, who served as defense secretary during the Clinton administration, also pointed to other burgeoning threats that must be considered as the military transforms, including cyber warfare, but urged Americans to keep the threats in perspective.

Cyber warfare "may be the biggest threat of all that we have to confront," he said. "It reminds me of Woody Allen’s speech to a graduating class where he said, ‘America is at a crossroads, a critical time in history. On one path we face utter despair and frustration…and on the other path we face total extinction. May you choose wisely.’ And sometimes we feel that way, except we’ve got to remind ourselves that we still are a great power."

To deal with the cyber threat and other high-tech perils, DOD will need to keep up with evolving technology — and its implications, he said.

“Technology is going to continue to evolve at ever faster levels," he said on the sidelines of his CSIS address. "The real issue is, do we have a regulatory system that can support it as technology exponentially increases? We can’t stay behind the curve. To me, that’s a danger. We’ve got to make sure that as technology races ahead that we remain consistent in preserving the right civil privacy and accountability. Technology is something that’s going to expand, and I don’t think we can anticipate how far-reaching it’s going to be.”

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