Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta called the possibility of automatic… (Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — Senior Pentagon officials sought Wednesday to head off additional reductions in defense spending in coming months, warning that thousands of Defense Department employees might have to be furloughed or laid off and that across-the-board cuts in military programs would jeopardize national security.
A day after President Obama signed a debt reduction bill that requires as much as $400 billion in Pentagon spending reduction over the next decade, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and other senior officials contended that Congress should look elsewhere in the federal budget for additional savings or raise taxes, rather than cut defense spending further.
Panetta called the possibility of automatic cuts totaling an additional half a trillion dollars "completely unacceptable" in a message to Defense Department employees released Wednesday.
The dire scenario outlined by Pentagon officials highlighted the political and fiscal roadblocks ahead for the "super-committee" to be created from members of the House and Senate as it seeks to carry out the law's requirement to find more than a trillion dollars in additional deficit reduction.
The $400 billion in future spending cuts already agreed to are "in line with what this department's civilian and military leaders were anticipating, and I believe we can implement these reductions while maintaining the excellence of our military," Panetta said. But the automatic cuts could do "real damage," he said.
By opposing cuts beyond the $400 billion, Pentagon officials were seeking to wall off a major chunk of the discretionary budget and to rally supporters in Congress from both parties. With troops deployed in both Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade, the Defense Department's allies have kept its budget growing despite the nation's fiscal woes.
It is not clear, though, whether the Pentagon can turn back the current pressure for deeper cuts in its budget, even with the bipartisan backing the military budget normally receives, said Gordon Adams, who oversaw the defense budget at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration and is now a professor at American University.
With U.S. military involvement in Iraq ending and public support for the decade-old war in Afghanistan waning, defense spending will come down substantially over the next decade, whether or not the automatic cuts kick in, he said. He took issue with claims that cuts even of that magnitude would leave the country vulnerable.
"Properly done, we will end up with a Defense Department budget that is a trillion dollars down and still be a very capable force," he said.
Pentagon officials are especially worried that they could be forced to make automatic cuts of $500 billion to $600 billion in defense by 2021, which the debt reduction bill requires if Congress fails to enact additional deficit reduction legislation by the end of the year.
A senior Defense official who briefed reporters at the Pentagon said the automatic cuts would kick in next spring, requiring an immediate reduction of $50 billion to $60 billion in the base defense budget, which is $553 billion for fiscal year 2012. Similar reduction would be required every year until 2021, totaling about $500 to $600 billion, unless Congress decided to overturn the cuts.
Along with the $400 billion in cuts already approved, about $1 trillion would be slashed from planned defense spending levels in the next decade, if the automatic cuts take effect, the official said. That amounts to roughly a 20% reduction in defense, he said.
The cost of the war in Afghanistan and overseas military operations in Iraq and elsewhere, which is about $160 billion a year, would be exempt, and Obama has authority not to cut military salaries and other personnel costs.
Even so, the cuts, coming in the middle of the fiscal year, would be spread across many of the Pentagon's budget accounts and would have "very far-reaching effects," the official said, requiring furloughs, layoffs and reductions in procurement and training budgets.
He urged lawmakers to focus on entitlement programs, which include Social Security and Medicare, or to raise taxes, rather than slash military programs more. "I would hope they would not make further cuts in defense, because we have taken a lot already. It remains a dangerous world."