Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks with members of the media Aug. 19 in his office at the Pentagon. (Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey / Air Force)
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Friday sought to reassure today's troops that their benefits will not be slashed amid widespread budget-cutting talks in Washington.
In an interview with Military Times in his Pentagon office, Panetta said he wants to grandfather today's retirement pensions for current troops, even if budget pressures force changes for future recruits.
"People who have come into the service and put their lives on the line, been deployed to the war zones, fought for this country, and who have been promised certain benefits as result of that — I'm not going to break faith with what's been promised to them," Panetta said. "Now, does that mean that stops you from making any changes? No, because obviously you can grandfather people in terms of their benefits, and then look at what changes you want put in place for those who decide to become a part of the volunteer force in the future."
Panetta, who took office in July, said he has not been briefed on a recent draft recommendation from the Defense Business Board that urged the Pentagon to do away with the 20-year pension system in favor of corporate-style 401(k) savings accounts. The board's plan would alter the military retirement system for all troops, even those serving today who have not reached the 20-year mark.
Panetta said he expects to review that proposal next month when the formal recommendation reaches his desk. But he expressed support for the Defense Business Board's idea that troops who separate before reaching the 20-year mark should receive some partial retirement benefit.
"A lot of our military leaves and they don't take a lot with them. … They are not vested in any way," Panetta said, referring to the roughly 83 percent of troops who separate before qualifying for retirement benefits.
"The question that I think is legitimate to at least ask is … for those future volunteers, is there a way to kind of shape this that might give them a little better protection in terms of being able to have some retirement and being able to take it with them?" Panetta said.
Staying in Iraq
On other issues, Panetta expects some U.S. troops to stay in Iraq beyond December's planned withdrawal date. Panetta visited Baghdad in July and http://www.militarytimes.com/news/2011/07/military-leon-panetta-afghanistan-iraq-overseas-trip-071311w/">said publicly that the Iraqis should "damn it, make a decision" about whether they want U.S. troops to stay into 2012. The Iraqi government has since agreed to enter formal negotiations for a possible troop presence.
Panetta said he views that move as a signal of political consensus in Baghdad that will ultimately lead to a troop extension.
"My view is that they finally did say yes," the secretary said.
But it remains unclear how many of the roughly 44,000 U.S. troops in Iraq today will stay and what their mission will be.
"The issue then becomes what is the kind of training assistance presence that Iraq feels it needs in order to defend itself and secure itself," Panetta said.
Troops to keep busy
Panetta, who took office almost a decade after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said troops should plan on a continued high operational tempo over the next decade as the military faces continued threats.
"The likelihood is that we are going to face some other crises," Panetta said. "If the ‘Arab spring' has told us anything, it is that we are dealing with an awful lot of turmoil in a very complicated part of the world."
But don't expect any boots on the ground in Libya, Panetta said. Asked whether the Pentagon was planning for any U.S. troops to go into Libya, where U.S. aircraft are currently assisting in NATO operations, Panetta said, "No, not at all."
"It's a fair bet that we are going to continue to confront threats in the world, that we are going to have to continue operations against terrorists, that we are going to have to continue to maintain a much more limited presence both with regards to Iraq, and as well as Afghanistan," he said. "If you add to that the need to continue to project our force in the world, to be able to show a presence in the world, particularly in the Pacific to check whatever happens with regard to China and obviously maintain a continued presence with regard to North Korea and the Koran peninsula.
Tackling health care costs
On health care benefits, Panetta said he supports the efforts of his predecessor, Robert Gates, to reform the Tricare health system, which included raising some Tricare fees on working-age retirees.
"I do support what Secretary Gates tried to do," Panetta said. "It's appropriate that, especially with tight budgets … that people contribute a little more with regards to getting that coverage.
"I'm not going to say I'm going to target health care," he added. "But it is, for me, part and parcel of all of the areas that we have to talk about as we decide, you know, what our Defense Department is going to look like, not just now, but … five and 10 years down the road."