Panetta: Troop pay may be on the table in future budget cuts

At a packed National Press Club lunch event Tuesday afternoon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave a talk full, as always, of ire at the unresolved specter of sequestration, but also spent time talking about how to implement further cuts to the Defense Department.

Under the 2011 Budget Control Act, Panetta and the military service chiefs carved out $487 billion from planned spending over the next fiscal decade. But if members of Congress can’t reach a budget deal that finds equivalent savings, the sequestration mechanism will kick in and lop an additional half-trillion dollars off the Defense Department’s bottom line.

“Because of political gridlock, this department still faces the possibility of another round of across-the-board cuts,” Panetta said. “Wherever I visit our troops, they make clear their concerns about those cuts. What does it mean for them and what does it mean for their families. We???re down to the wire now.”

But even while Panetta urged Congress Tuesday to put a halt to sequestration, he joined the new trend of defense hard-liners talking in earnest about additional Pentagon cuts.

“We obviously continue to look at areas where we can achieve efficiencies at the DoD. There’s no question there is duplication, there is overhead in a bureaucracy of three million people,” he said.

Asked about his own staff detail, he said “hell yes,” they too were subject to scrutiny when it came to looking for redundancies in the Pentagon.

Panetta said there were four areas he looked at when trying to achieve savings: efficiencies; force structure reductions, or decreasing total troop strength; procurement reforms; and, perhaps most controversially, compensation.

Troop pay was not directly affected by the Budget Control Act reductions, but if Panetta was laying out a road map for future cuts, as he appeared to be doing, it may not be spared for long.

“Everything has to be looked at if you’re serious about achieving the kind of savings that we need to achieve to address the budget deficit,” Panetta said, adding that he faced a $50 million healthcare bill at the Defense Department and that pay rates had grown significantly in recent years.

Still, military pay seems a strange place to start cutting. While troops do have a robust benefits package during service, pay can be barebones, starting at roughly $1,500 per month for junior enlisted service members. Cuts or cost increases to veterans’ healthcare are also a sore spot, as fee increases in the current defense budget bill have left some retirees feeling let down by the military.

But Tuesday Panetta left the impression that these items would come under scrutiny again if another round of strategic cuts were to occur.

“I don???t think there should be anything that is sacrosanct when you face the kind of budget reductions we face,” he said.