Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Congress on Monday that deeper defense cuts would leave the military with the smallest ground force since 1940, lead to possible months-long furloughs of civilian employees and force the Pentagon to recalibrate its national security strategy to accept "substantial risk."
The Pentagon is already facing $450 billion in cuts to projected spending over the next 10 years, an amount that could more than double if members of Congress' supercommittee fail to produce a $1.2 trillion deficit-cutting plan by Nov. 23. Panetta, who repeatedly has argued against further reductions, offered the most detailed description of the implications of the automatic, across-the-board cuts that would kick in _ half coming from defense.
In the first year alone of 2013, it would add up to a 23 percent cut that Panetta called devastating.
"Such a large cut, applied in this indiscriminate manner, would render most of our ship and construction projects unexecutable -- you cannot buy three quarters of a ship or a building and seriously damage other modernization efforts. We would also be forced to separate many of our civilian personnel involuntarily and, because the reduction would be imposed so quickly, we would almost certainly have to furlough civilians in order to meet the target," Panetta wrote in a letter.
By his calculations, "we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history" at the end of the decade, Panetta said.
Panetta, who has used apocalyptic terms such as "doomsday," "hollow force" and "paper tiger" to describe the cuts, spelled out the details in a letter to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the panel. The two had written to Panetta earlier this month seeking specifics.
While painting a dire picture of the military if the automatic cuts are triggered, Panetta also implored the lawmakers to stave off such reductions.
If they did not, the Pentagon chief said the military would have to rethink its strategy.
"We would have to formulate a new security strategy that accepted substantial risk of not meeting our defense needs. A sequestration budget is not one that I could recommend," said Panetta, a former California congressman and head of the House Budget Committee.
At least two of the potential cuts outlined by Panetta would strike at the heart of U.S. defense strategy.
One is the elimination of missile defense in Europe. The Obama administration's commitment to building a network of radars and interceptors to defend all of Europe against a potential missile strike from Iran is central to U.S. efforts to update NATO defense priorities, improve defense cooperation with Russia and deter Iran.
The other _ eliminating one of three "legs" of the U.S. nuclear arsenal _ would force a historic shift in nuclear planning. Panetta said he would be forced to eliminate intercontinental ballistic missiles, the globe-circling missiles based in underground silos. These currently consist of 450 Minuteman III missiles based in the north-central U.S. The other two legs of the nuclear arsenal are submarine-launch ballistic missiles and air-launch missiles and bombs.
In his letter, Panetta said the deeper reductions would affect the military's ability to support the war in Afghanistan and lead to a fleet of fewer than 230 ships, the smallest number since 1915.
He offered a list of weapons programs that would be cut back, delayed or terminated such as the Joint Strike Fighter, the next generation ballistic missile submarine and new Army helicopters. Any reductions in weapons programs would set off a fierce fight in Congress as lawmakers look to protect programs and jobs in their districts.
Delaying or terminating surveillance drone programs would stifle a critical new technology that has allowed the U.S. to better track and eliminate terrorists in countries where American troops are not present.
Recent examples include the strike that killed al-Qaida-linked cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and the surveillance that led to the death of ousted Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi. Drones are also the weapon of choice for the CIA as it hunts and kills insurgents in Pakistan that routinely target U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Panetta's comments add pressure to the supercommittee just 10 days before its deadline as panel Republicans and Democrats struggle to fulfill their mandate. The Pentagon letter also stirs the recent talk in Congress about trying to nullify the automatic cuts, a step McCain and Graham have discussed. However, President Barack Obama said last week that he wouldn't accept any legislation that tries to undo the automatic cuts.
In a statement, McCain and Graham said the automatic cuts "would set off a swift decline of the United States as the world's leading military power. ... This is not an outcome that we can live with, and it is certainly not one that we should impose on ourselves. The sequester is a threat to the national security interests of the United States, and it should not be allowed to occur."
Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.