WASHINGTON: The general named to be chief of the US military said Tuesday that steep budget cuts posed risks as the United States faces challenges from Afghanistan to Pakistan to the new realm of cyber war.
General Martin Dempsey, whose four-decade career has taken him from teaching English to West Point cadets to leading troops in Iraq, promised to respect budget constraints as he leads forces increasingly engaged around the world.
In his Senate hearing to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dempsey pledged to "adapt the United States military to a new fiscal reality while ensuring, as my primary responsibility, that America remains immune from coercion."
But pressed on the proposals for steeper cuts, Dempsey voiced concern.
President Barack Obama, who nominated Dempsey, has proposed $400 billion in defense cuts in the next 12 years. Lawmakers of Obama's Democratic Party have proposed cuts twice as steep as the United States faces the prospect of a debt default.
"Based on the difficulty of achieving the $400 billion cut, I believe $800 billion would be extraordinarily difficult and very high risk," Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Dempsey was responding to questions from Senator John McCain of Arizona, a senior Republican and champion of the military, who accused proponents of steep cuts of offering "no strategic and military rationale."
"They're simply numbers on a page. Our national defense planning and spending must be driven by considered strategy, not arbitrary arithmetic," McCain said.
Dempsey said he supported Obama's decision to pull 33,000 troops out of Afghanistan by the end of next summer, asserting that US military leaders had offered the plan among their recommendations to the White House.
General David Petraeus, until recently the US commander in Afghanistan, testified before the same Senate committee in June that he and Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing US military chief, had backed a more modest withdrawal.
Under fire from McCain, Dempsey said of the pullout plan: "I think it did increase the risk, yes."
McCain and military leaders have sought at least two more summer fighting seasons against the Taliban in the nearly decade-long war launched in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Obama tripled troop numbers in Afghanistan since taking office. But the war is increasingly unpopular with Democrats and a growing number of Republicans who question the human and financial cost of the longest war in US history.
Pakistan’s India complex
The United States has increasingly focused on neighboring Pakistan, launching drone attacks in border areas where militants have found shelter. US forces killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in 2011 in Abbottabad, a garrison town which does not lie in the lawless tribal areas.
Dempsey told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that he will "continue to work with Pakistan to reduce the safe haven" on the border.
"As you know, they persist in the idea that India poses an existential threat to their existence while the terrorists that operate with some impunity in North West Frontier Province and FATA are less of a threat to them, and therefore they allocate their resources accordingly," he said, referring to two parts of Pakistan.
The United States is working to convince Pakistan that extremists in its western areas are "as great a threat and probably a greater threat to them than any threat that India might pose," Dempsey said.
Dempsey said he would also focus on cyber-warfare, saying it "will probably be one of a handful of issues that define my tenure as chairman."
The Pentagon set up a Cyber Command after a 2008 attack that commandeered computers at US Central Command, which runs the war in Afghanistan.
Dempsey said civilian leaders would decide if a cyber-attack constituted an act of war but that he would assess "what capabilities we must provide the nation to be prepared to respond should we be attacked."
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