If you thought the Department of Defense would quietly accept a challenge to their budgetary authority, you were wrong. Leon Panetta, who’s been in the job barely over a month, warned Congress yesterday that, while DoD could handle the first round of cuts from the debt limit deal, the automatic cuts as part of the trigger would be simply intolerable. Somehow, he did an assessment of the ten-year budgeting needs consistent with maintaining national security in the space of four weeks.

I will do everything I can to ensure that further reductions in defense spending are not pursued in a hasty, ill-conceived way that would undermine the military’s ability to protect America and its vital interests around the globe. For example, the debt ceiling agreement contains a sequester mechanism that would take effect if Congress fails to enact further deficit reduction. If that happens, it could trigger a round of dangerous across-the-board defense cuts that would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our ability to protect the nation. This potential deep cut in defense spending is not meant as policy. Rather, it is designed to be unpalatable to spur responsible, balanced deficit reduction and avoid misguided cuts to our security.

Indeed, this outcome would be completely unacceptable to me as Secretary of Defense, the President, and to our nation’s leaders. That’s because we live in a world where terrorist networks threaten us daily, rogue nations seek to develop dangerous weapons, and rising powers watch to see if America will lose its edge. The United States must be able to protect our core national security interests with an adaptable force capable and ready to meet these threats and deter adversaries that would put those interests at risk. I will do all I can to assist the Administration and congressional leaders to make the commonsense cuts needed to avoid this sequester mechanism.

I remember some people saying that Panetta’s arrival at DoD was positive, because as a former OMB Director and House Budget Committee Chairman, he would root out all the waste and overspending at the Pentagon. Shockingly, he seems just as committed to that bloated budget now that he’s in charge of the department!

To be fair, Panetta is instituting a financial audit statement for the Pentagon, and stressed “procurement discipline.” But he is in no mood to cut that baseline budget more than absolutely necessary. Understand that the Pentagon’s budget has grown 9% year-over-year for a decade. We spend more than the rest of the world combined on our military. And the big money is in weapons systems. Not that they would be affected in the event of a trigger.

A senior Pentagon official warned Wednesday that the military would be forced to furlough or lay off thousands of employees if it is required to cut an additional $600 billion from the defense budget.

Senior Pentagon officials walked a fine line Wednesday in raising alarms about the possibility of large cuts to the defense budget and at the same time casting the big cuts and possible layoffs as virtually unthinkable.

“I would rather avoid scaring our employees,” said the senior defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to Pentagon reporters. “I don’t think this will happen.”

I think he’d rather scare members of Congress, and scaring employees is just collateral damage.

All of these cuts would involve layoffs at some level; that’s way austerity is such a crazy policy in the midst of a jobs crisis. But if there’s one department that could absorb a good deal of cuts by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse, it’s the Department of Defense. They don’t want to admit it, but they make out pretty well in the first round of cuts, because the savings are less than the President budgeted and spread over “security” rather than just DoD. And just ending things like a second engine for the F-35, as we have seen, saves tons of money. And that’s not the only duplicative procurement issue at the Pentagon.

It’s not so much that the military budget is unsustainable, though there’s that. It’s that the money poured into unproductive killing could be intelligently redirected to more life-affirming activities.

David Dayen

David Dayen