Afghanistan troop withdrawals and runaway military spending will need to be two of Leon Panetta’s priorities once he takes office as the new secretary of defense June 30, according to Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan.
Once Robert Gates steps down, Panetta must act on President Barack Obama’s promise to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan this year and an additional 23,000 next year. Obama has also set the bar high for Panetta when it comes to spending cuts.
“The 2013 budget is already into the programming phase and he’s got to start making some cuts there because Obama promised that we’re going to do $400 billion in cuts between now and 2023,” Korb said in an interview with Federal News Radio.
“I think you ought to take a look at the size of the Army and the Marine Corps, and start pushing that forward,” said Korb as part of his suggested program for budget cuts. “You’re not going to get a lot of savings the first year but in 2014 and 2015, I think you can look there.” Troops withdrawals, he said, reduce the need for a large military force.
As the new DoD secretary, Korb said Panetta should also examine the cost of expensive military projects.
“I’d take a look at some of the weapons systems that are way over budget and not performing well, like the B-22 [bomber] and the F-13 fighter,” said Korb. “Those are the types of things I think you can start looking at right away.”
Panetta won’t be the only new face at DoD. Joining him will be Martin Dempsey, who takes over as the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dempsey’s current position as Army Chief of Staff will then need to be filled by a yet-to-be-named replacement.
Korb said the change of command won’t upset the rhythm of progress at DoD.
“I think if you brought in a whole new civilian team you would because obviously they wouldn’t be experienced in it, but Gen. Dempsey, who’s going to be the new chairman, he’s already a member of the chiefs as the Army Chief of Staff, so he obviously is quite familiar with how things go.”
Korb said the new hires at DoD will also help bring a new perspective on some longstanding, entrenched issues like the budget and Afghanistan.
Civilian DoD members such as Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, and Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Ashton Carter will stay on the job but Korb advised Panetta to look for replacements by the end of the President’s term.
All three civilian members have served in their offices since 2009, and having a clear sense of who should replace the existing chain of command when the time comes will help ease the transition, said Korb.
“The effective secretaries have been the ones that have had their own teams,” said Korb. “Those are the people who are basically going to run the place while you’re off at NATO meetings or going to meet the Chinese, for example.”
Looking over Panetta’s credentials, Korb said the new secretary has the experience needed to take on all these tasks.
“He did have the great budget background as not only the head of OMB but also as head of the House Budget Committee,” said Korb. “Plus, the CIA makes him an ideal candidate for the job because he’s going to be able to hit the ground running. I mean, he’s not going to have to get up to speed, for example, on Afghanistan or what’s happening with China or Iraq.”
What Panetta should consider, however, is his own shelf life as the secretary of DoD, said Korb.
“Here’s the thing I do worry about. We’re almost into the election year, so how much can Panetta get done? And then, assuming Obama gets reelected, does he stay on, because by then, he’ll be like 74 years old,” said Korb. “Does he want to stay on for himself another four years?”