WASHINGTON, July 26, 2011 -- Work ahead for the U.S. military includes completing current conflicts and preparing for an uncertain future, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee today.

Dempsey, Army chief of staff, answered questions during a confirmation hearing as President Barack Obama’s choice to serve as chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff when Navy Adm. Mike Mullen retires at the end of September.

“If confirmed, I will work with the Joint Chiefs to ensure that this nation has the military it needs,” Dempsey said. “Our work must result in a joint force that is responsive, decisive, versatile, interdependent and affordable, and we must keep faith with [servicemembers], their families and our veterans.”

The senators sought Dempsey’s views on a range of issues, including U.S. military relations with Pakistan, cybersecurity, acquisition reform, and especially defense budget cuts and how they will affect the nation’s military strength.

Reflecting on his service as acting commander of U.S. Central Command after Gen. David H. Petraeus was tapped to command NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Dempsey characterized the “intellectual disagreement” between the U.S. and Pakistani militaries.

“It's always been a matter of discussion between us and our Pakistan counterparts about what threats are most serious to them and to us,” he said. “The Pakistanis persist in the idea that India poses an existential threat to their existence, while the terrorists that operate with some impunity in the Northwest Frontier province and in the [federally administered tribal areas] are less of a threat.”

The United States has been working to convince Pakistani military leaders that the extremist threat to their west is probably greater than any threat India might pose, the general said.

“It's just one of those things we have to continue to work through,” he added.

If deteriorating U.S-Pakistani relations prompt the Pakistanis to cut off supply routes across their country to troops in Afghanistan, Dempsey said, “we would have to rely more on what we describe as the northern supply route, and that would be more expensive.”

In response to a question about news reports of massive spending losses since 1996 on canceled Army programs, Dempsey said it would be impossible to justify the current process, “given that it has not delivered the capabilities we've required within the resources available to do so.”

The Defense Department is at a point, he added, “where we absolutely have to seek acquisition reform.”

Dempsey noted that Ashton B. Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, is undertaking such efforts, and the 2009 Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act is improving acquisition processes.

“There's probably a reason to consider a different role for the service chiefs in acquisition,” the general said. “Right now, it's kind of bifurcated: service chiefs do requirements, [and] acquisition does the materiel solution. That hasn't worked, and I think it has to be revisited.

“Nevertheless,” he added, “we need capabilities.”

Dempsey said his role as chairman, if confirmed, “will be to argue for that fifth-generation [jet] fighter, but a fifth-generation fighter that the nation can afford. And the way to that is through acquisition reform.”

Acknowledging the many and growing threats to cybersecurity for the nation and its allies, the general said he is educating himself about the Pentagon’s first unified strategy for cyberspace, launched July 14.

Asked about how the United States should respond to a major cyber attack, Dempsey said the determination that an attack is an act of war is a political decision.

“It's the role of the department and, if confirmed, with my advice as chairman, on how to respond to it,” he told the Senate panel. “At this point, my greater interest is in determining what capabilities we must provide the nation to be prepared to respond should we be attacked and should the determination be made that it was a hostile act or an act of war.”

Dempsey added that he is studying the question and has a series of meetings scheduled, if confirmed as chairman, “with those who are delivering that capability today, to better understand it.”

In response to many questions about the ongoing reduction in defense spending, Dempsey said the Defense Department is responding to a proposed reduction of $400 billion over 12 years. At the same time, he said, the Pentagon is working to complete a comprehensive program review by late September or early October that will determine the impact on the Defense Department of meeting the $400 billion target.

If the proposed cut were to increase to $800 billion, as one senator suggested, Dempsey noted that finding $400 billion to cut while maintaining adequate capability has been a serious challenge.

“Based on the difficulty of achieving the $400 billion cut,” he said, “I believe [$800 billion] would be extraordinarily difficult and very high-risk.”

Dempsey said an important point in the need to absorb cuts in the defense budget reductions is that such cuts must touch all areas -- force structure, equipment procurement and operations and training.

“That includes pay, compensation, retirement and health care,” the general added, “because it's important that we place everything on the table, assess the impact, and then request the time to do it in a deliberate fashion so that we can maintain balance” wherever the budget ends up.

It’s important to maintain an open dialogue with all parts of the total force -- active, Guard, Reserve, families, retirees -- to help them understand the challenge, Dempsey said.

Speaking just for the Army, he said, “right now our manpower costs consume approximately 42 percent of our budget. Left unaddressed, that will rise to approximately 47 or 48 percent by 2017. That is not sustainable.”

When questioned about budget details, Dempsey told the senators that he’s “not a man of numbers, necessarily, or charts and wiring diagrams.”

Instead, the general passed around an image showing a Soldier in combat on a radio, calling in for something he needs, with a fellow Soldier protecting his flank.

“What makes us unique is that that noncommissioned officer believes he's going to get what he asks for,” Dempsey said. “We are the only army on the face of the Earth that believes that when you ask for something because you need it to prevail in the environment we place you, you're actually going to get it.”

As the Defense Department does whatever is necessary with today’s fighting force based on available resources, he said, the relationship of trust is one thing it cannot lose.

“That's what carries us through,” he said.

In answer to the question about budget numbers, the general said, “I don't know. But what I do know is that I will not allow that relationship of trust to be violated.”