The Pentagon chief says the military will work to rein in spending but calls the threat of across-the-board cuts later this year a "doomsday mechanism" that would do great harm to national security.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that America's armed forces will face tough challenges in meeting the first round of some $350 billion in cuts mandated by the debt-ceiling measure signed Tuesday.
But a second, larger, round would be triggered if Congress cannot agree on further decreases by Christmas.
In remarks during his first Pentagon news conference, Panetta said that such cuts in the past have left the military too small and with too little money to do its job.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
Silent for days amid the Capitol Hill debt standoff, the Pentagon has finally thrown down a marker, vowing to fight against military budget cuts officials say would endanger national security and mean job losses for thousands of Defense Department employees.
In his first public comments on the new deficit-slashing debt ceiling legislation, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday that the department will do its part to help get the nation's finances in order. But he said a second round of potentially across-the-board spending cuts later this year would be "completely unacceptable."
"I will do everything I can to ensure that further reductions in defense spending are not pursued in a hasty, ill-conceived way that would undermine the military's ability to protect America and its vital interests around the globe," he said in a message to troops and civilian department employees.
Under the bill signed by President Barack Obama on Tuesday, Pentagon spending over 10 years would be reduced by $350 billion from projected increases. That's pretty much in line with what defense officials expected, Panetta noted, since Obama announced in April that the Pentagon must accept $400 billion in defense cuts over 12 years.
At that time, defense officials warned that such cuts couldn't be made without reducing military forces and setting priorities on what missions the country was willing to do without. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for a Pentagon-wide strategy and budget review, which officials say is continuing.
What has defense officials more worried is the second step in Tuesday's legislation: A 12-member, House-Senate committee must propose as much as $1.5 trillion more in deficit cuts over a decade and do so by year's end. If it deadlocks or Congress rejects its recommendations, the Obama administration would impose $1.2 trillion across-the-board spending cuts, with half hitting the Pentagon.
That "would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families and our ability to protect the nation," Panetta declared Wednesday. "I will fight for you and your families as we face these budget challenges."
It would lead to furloughs of civilian employees, layoffs, destruction of programs and possibly even a reduction in troop levels, a senior defense official told reporters in a Pentagon briefing Wednesday.
It was pretty much the same thing his predecessor Gates had been saying, but the first time Panetta put himself forcefully into the fray.
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