WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta cautioned global rivals on Sunday not to misjudge U.S. plans to slash military spending over the next decade, saying America would still field the world's strongest military and nobody should "mess with that."
Panetta, speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation" program ahead of Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, also reminded Republican presidential contenders who have criticized the Pentagon's new military strategy that the decision to cut $487 billion in defense spending was made by a bipartisan Congress.
Panetta also said Iran is laying the groundwork for making nuclear weapons someday but is not yet building a bomb and called for continued diplomatic and economic pressure to persuade Tehran not to take that step.
As he has previously, Panetta cautioned against a unilateral strike by Israel against Iran's nuclear facilities, saying the action could trigger Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces in the region.
"We have common cause here" with Israel, he said. "And the better approach is for us to work together."
Panetta's remarks on "Face the Nation," which were taped Friday and aired Sunday, reflect the long-held view of the Obama administration that Iran is not yet committed to building a nuclear arsenal, only to creating the industrial and scientific capacity to allow one if its leaders to decide to take that final step.
The comments suggest the White House's assessment of Iran's nuclear strategy has not changed in recent months, despite warnings from advocates of military action that time is running out to prevent Tehran from becoming a nuclear-armed state.
Regarding the defense cuts, some Republicans have expressed concerns about them and their impact. Leading Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney charged that President Barack Obama's new military strategy unveiled this week was "inexcusable and unthinkable" because it would reduce U.S. global military capability.
The new strategy, which is meant to guide defense spending over the next decade as the military cuts back, calls for greater emphasis on Asia even as the Army and Marines shrink to become smaller and more agile forces.
Some Republicans have been concerned about a shift away from the Pentagon's Cold War-era goal of being able to fight two major ground wars simultaneously. Pentagon officials have downplayed the shift, saying the military will still be configured to fight more than one conflict at a time.
"I think this country has to deal with the reality of the situation that we're confronting," Panetta said in a pre-recorded interview. "We're coming out of a decade of war. We're facing a huge budget crisis in this country. The Congress said ... we have to reduce the defense budget by $487 billion."
General Martin Dempsey, the top U.S. military officer as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told "Face the Nation" he worried that some countries might misunderstand the debate Americans are having over changing strategy and the need to cut defense spending.
"There may be some around the world who see us as a nation in decline, and worse, as a military in decline. And nothing could be further from the truth," Dempsey said.
He said such a miscalculation could be "troublesome" in dealing with countries like Iran or North Korea but it could also cause close friends to wonder if the United States would continue to be a consistent ally.
"What I'd like to say right now is we're the same partner we've always been, and intend to remain that way," Dempsey said.
Panetta said U.S. rivals should not misunderstand the situation.
"I think the message that the world needs to understand is: America is the strongest military power and we intend to remain the strongest military power and nobody ought to mess with that," he said.
Asked whether it would be difficult to take out Iran's nuclear capability, Dempsey said it was his job to plan and understand the risks associated with any military option and "all those activities are going on."
"They need to know that ... if they take that step, they are going to get stopped," Panetta said.
The United States is concerned that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at producing a weapon, but Tehran insists it is for peaceful energy production.
Obama and Congress agreed in August to cut some $487 billion in defense spending over the next decade as part of efforts to bring of the nation's $14 trillion debt under control.
Defense spending could be cut by another $600 billion as part of the August deal unless Congress compromises on an alternative. Congress missed the deadline for reaching an agreement but could still take action to override the cuts before they are due to go into force next year.
Obama, in unveiling the new defense strategy at a Pentagon news conference on Thursday, noted that even with the $487 trillion in cuts to projected spending, the defense budget would continue to grow in nominal terms.
He also noted that the U.S. defense budget also would still be by far the world's largest - roughly the size of the next largest defense budgets combined. (Reporting By David Alexander; editing by Christopher Wilson)