Panetta warns lawmakers of huge military cutbacks if supercommittee fails

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned lawmakers Monday that a supercommittee failure would force Pentagon officials to slash planned 2013 spending by $100 billion.

Should the congerssional debt panel fail to strike an accord on at least $1.2 trillion in federal spending cuts, the Defense Department would have to slash its planned spending by that amount annually for a decade. It would amount to a 20 percent reduction from the spending plan included in the Pentagon’s 2012 budget plan.

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Cuts of that magnitude would force the military to shed thousands of troops, hinder ongoing and future combat operations, while also placing at risk many of the department’s major hardware programs, Panetta wrote Monday in a letter to lawmakers.

For the first time, the letter includes specific programs and other items that Pentagon officials have identified as cut options should the special panel fail. The letter was sent to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), another hawkish panel member.

The letter warns sequestration would set off big personnel reductions over the next decade that would “undermine our ability to meet our national security objectives and require a significant revision to our defense strategy.”

The letter, released by McCain's office, is the latest example of Panetta recently steadily ramping up his warnings about the impacts of a supercommittee failure.

Around $1 trillion in total cuts would create the smallest U.S. ground force since 1940, the smallest naval fleet (less than 230 ships) since 1915, and the smallest fighter jet arsenal in the history of the Air Force.

Other weapons programs would be affected, as well, with the secretary noting per-platform costs would swell and total buys would shrink.

Programs and people cuts would begin in fiscal 2013, which begins next October. The Pentagon would make its first set of proposals for meeting the $1 trillion cut in the budget for next year that will go to Capitol Hill in February, leaving Congress to approve or reject specific cuts — or make their own spending decisions.

In the letter, Panetta rattles his budget saber, describing “significant operational risks” like slower responses to global crises and a decreased “ability to be … engaged around the world.”

“The severe disruption in the [Pentagon’s] base budget would have adverse effect on our ability to support the Afghan war,” Panetta told the senators.

Panetta also makes clear he might be forced to terminate big-ticket acquisition programs like tri-service F-35 fighter program, the Air Force’s new bomber effort, the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship and new ballistic missile submarine initiatives, as well as “all” ground combat vehicles and Army helicopter programs.

The Pentagon chief also warns of possible delays to of terminations of satellite and intelligence-gathering programs. One leg of the nuclear triad — the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal — also made the list.

He even warns the kinds of unmanned drones used to gather intelligence and surveillance data during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might be terminated or delayed.

The letter is not clear, however, on the order in which those high-profile programs would be placed on the budget chopping block. Panetta cryptically states only that “decisions relating to major programs could include” those initiatives.

DoD also would dramatically shrink the size of its civilian workforce, Panetta said.

In a statement, McCain and Graham called the possible sequestration cuts a “draconian action” that is a “threat to the national security interests of the United States.”

While the Pentagon boss, a former Democratic Office of Management and Budget chief, and GOP senators said $1 trillion would be a cut too deep, the Project on Defense Alternatives last month called cuts up to $145 billion a year “reasonable.”

“Modest changes to U.S. military strategy and global posture implemented over the next 10 years can reliably offer deficit-reducing savings from the Pentagon budget ranging from $73 billion a year to $118 billion a year,” the PDA stated in an October report. “When these savings are added to other savings available which are not related to strategic change the totals are from $92 billion to $145 billion annually.”

The organization’s report includes a sweeping list of force structure — people and platforms — and strategy changes. PDA recommended reducing the U.S. military footprint in Europe and Asia, while also shrinking the size of America’s strategic nuclear arsenal. It also called for a smaller naval ship and fighter jet fleets.

“None of these strategy and global posture changes would produce a ‘hollow’ force,” PDA analysts wrote, “nor mean that the armed forces of the United States would be anything other than the most-effective, best-equipped and best-trained in the world.”

There is ample room to cut an annual Pentagon budget that has been inflated by 40 percent since 1998 and 30 percent since 2001, PDA said.

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