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 10 years mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.
Also Thursday, Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that they moved quickly to deploy commando teams from Spain and Central Europe last Sept. 11, the chaotic day of the assault on the U.S. installation in Benghazi, Libya, but the first military unit didn’t arrive until 15 hours after the first of two attacks.
“Time, distance, the lack of an adequate warning, events that moved very quickly on the ground prevented a more immediate response,” Panetta said.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of an election-year cover-up of a terrorist attack in the nearly five months since the assault, and they kept up the politically charged onslaught on Thursday. The military also found itself under attack, with at least one senator accusing the Joint Chiefs chairman of peddling falsehoods.