Panetta: Supercommittee failure would ‘hollow out’ military's combat force

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta vowed Thursday that he will not preside over deep Pentagon budget cuts that "hollow out" the military's combat power.

If the special congressional deficit panel fails to agree on $1.2 trillion in federal spending cuts by Thanksgiving, the Pentagon and other security agencies would face around $600 billion in automatic cuts. Officials say the Defense Department would take about half that cut, on top of the bulk of another $350 billion funding reduction over a decade mandated in the August debt deal.

If the $600 billion trigger is enacted by a supercommittee failure, it "guarantees that we will hollow out the force," Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

"I don't want to hollow out the force," Panetta said. "I am not going to do that."

The Pentagon chief outlined his plans for implementing the $350 billion in cuts, a drill that will be heavily informed by an ongoing DOD-led review of the nation's security needs and threats.

The secretary said his first goal is to "maintain the best military in the world," something he says would be jeopardized if deep cuts to combat hardware and training are necessitated by a the panel's failure.

He promised to review the military's costly personnel compensation programs, but said any changes in this arena must not "break confidence" with a force composed solely of volunteers.

During past eras of Defense Department budget cuts, "we did hollow out the force," Panetta told panel member Sen. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeDefense bill moves forward with lawmakers thinking about McCain Overnight Energy: EPA moves to roll back chemical plant safety rule | NASA chief says humans contribute to climate change | Pruitt gets outside lawyer House lawmakers to unveil water resources bill on Friday MORE (R-Okla.), who pressed the secretary on how he would implement the cuts. Panetta vowed to make cuts based on strategic needs, saying he will not "take everything down by a certain percentage."

If the trigger cuts are enacted, Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsDeVos grilled on civil rights for students House conservatives introduce resolution calling for second special counsel The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — How long can a Trump-DOJ accord survive? MORE (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the upper chamber's Budget Committee, said he calculates the Pentagon would be forced to cut $850 billion over a decade when coupled with the reductions agreed to in August.

Outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen upped that ante, saying internal Pentagon estimations put the total at around $1.1 trillion.

That scenario "has the chance of breaking us" and "will impose a heavy burden on developing equipment in the future."