Defense Secretary Ashton Carter echoed the warnings Wednesday of Air Force leaders who have described projected budget cuts as devastating to a service that was already operating at the "ragged edge" of readiness.
"With only 14 days remaining in this fiscal year, Congress has yet to pass appropriations bills that will appropriately fund the government for the coming year," he said in prepared remarks.
Without a deal to end automatic spending caps known as sequestration, the military will end up with $38 million less than President Obama has proposed, Carter said.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told defense reporters Tuesday that the Air Force would take a $13 billion hit. Air Force Gen. Herbert J. "Hawk" Carlisle, head of the Air Combat Command, said that the force was already on the "ragged edge."
A continuing resolution on the budget to keep spending at current levels, often a fallback measure employed by a gridlocked Congress, would be equally bad, Carter said.
In an address to the Air and Space Conference organized by the Air Force Association, Carter said that the projected cuts would undermine the theme of the three-day event at National Harbor, Maryland, which was "Re-inventing the Aerospace Nation."
"Yet again, we face the real risk that political gridlock will hold us back" on a range of programs, the secretary said. "The alternative to a budget deal, a long-term continuing resolution, is merely sequestration-level funding under another name."
The Pentagon "has done its best to manage through budget uncertainty in recent years, making difficult choices and tradeoffs among the size, capabilities, and readiness of the joint force." However, "over that time, Russia and China have advanced their capabilities."
Carter noted China's efforts to turn submerged reefs in the South China Sea into airfields and military bases to bolster sovereignty claims in the region. Despite the budget cuts, the Air Force was going ahead with the transfer of "high-end assets" to the region to counter China as part of the rebalance of forces to the Asia-Pacific, he said.
"After all, turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit," Carter said.
"There should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all over the world," he said.
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com