WASHINGTON -- The United States is at risk of becoming a second-rate power if automatic budget cuts go into effect, plunging the U.S. armed forces into the most significant readiness crisis they've faced in more than a decade, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Thursday.
Panetta, who is retiring soon from his post, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that if the reductions are allowed to stand he would have to throw the country's national defense strategy "out the window." But Panetta also assured lawmakers the Pentagon would take the steps necessary to deal with possible threats in the Persian Gulf region after he approved the Navy's request to halve its aircraft carrier presence in the area.
Anticipating the Defense Department will have less money to spend, Panetta said the Pentagon has already imposed a freeze on hiring and cut back on maintenance at bases and facilities. Those moves are reversible, he said, as long as Congress acts quickly to head off the cuts, known as sequestration, and approves a 2013 military budget.
The potential for the cuts to kick in on March 1 is the result of Congress' failure to trim the deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade. The Pentagon faces a $42.7 billion budget trim in the seven months starting in March and ending in September. The automatic cuts would be in addition to a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next ten years mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.
Further complicating the military's fiscal picture is the lack of a new defense budget. Congress hasn't approved one. Lawmakers have instead been passing bills called continuing resolutions, which keep spending levels at the same rate as the year before. That means the Pentagon is operating on less money than it planned for, and that compounds the problem, Panetta said.
Panetta said that the department understood that it needed to do its part to help bring down the federal deficit and has been adjusting its plans to deal with the lower spending levels. But adding sequestration on top of that creates an untenable situation, he said.
The result of the sequestration cuts, Panetta said, is that "instead of being a first-rate power in the world, we'd turn into a second-rate power." He added that it would be irresponsible for Congress to allow the cuts to take place. A "sequester was not designed as a mechanism that was supposed to happen," Panetta said. "It was designed to be so nuts that everybody would do everything possible to make sure it didn't happen."
Panetta has been vocal about stopping sequestration because it would leave the military "hollow," meaning the armed forces would look good on paper but actually lack the training and equipment they need to handle their missions.
As part of that campaign, the Defense Department has been providing greater details on the effect of the reductions. The department on Wednesday said it is cutting its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf region from two carriers to one, a move that represents one of the most significant effects of sequestration. The U.S. has maintained two aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf for much of the last two years.
The deployments of the USS Harry S Truman and the USS Gettysburg, a guided-missile cruiser, are being delayed as part of the Navy's plan to deal with the budget uncertainty.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided in 2010 to keep two carrier groups in the Gulf region as tensions with Iran escalated. Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway through which roughly a fifth of the world's oil supply passes, in retaliation for increased Western-led sanctions.
"We're going to do everything we can to make sure that we are prepared to deal with the threat from Iran," Panetta said. "We will have one carrier there and we will deploy other forces there so that we can hopefully fill the gap."
A group of Republican lawmakers from the House and Senate have offered a plan to cut the size of the federal workforce and use the savings to replace the cuts to the Pentagon and to domestic programs, which also are affected by sequestration. Similar legislation offered last year did not pass.
Each of the military branches has described in detailed memos to Congress widespread civilian furloughs, layoffs and hiring freezes that will hit workers all around the country. Overall, the Pentagon will furlough 800,000 civilian workers for 22 days, spread across more than five months, and will lay off as many as 46,000 temporary and contract employees, according to the correspondence.
The Navy said it will cease deployments to South America and the Caribbean and limit deployments to Europe. The Air Force warned that it would cut operations at various missile defense radar sites from 24 hours to eight hours. The Army said it would cancel training center rotations for four brigades and cancel repairs for thousands of vehicles, radios and weapons.
There is also concern that the readiness levels of the U.S. nuclear force could be degraded. The Air Force general responsible for maintaining the nation's fleet of nuclear-capable bombers said Wednesday that the possibility of sequestration and smaller defense budgets has led his command to make a 10 percent cut in flying hours for the B-52 bomber, a long-range aircraft that has been in operation since the 1950s.
"At the wing and the squadron level, they can probably manage that for a little while, and then we'll have to see what the impact of that is," said Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, commander of the Global Strike Command at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
The B-52, which is the bomber fleet's workhorse, is already flying 20 percent fewer training missions than it did in 2001, according to Kowalski.
Kowalski also said discussions among senior national security officials are underway to determine whether missions handled by the nation's nuclear forces should get priority budget status in the event of sequestration. Global Strike Command also is responsible for B-2 stealth bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.