By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned lawmakers on Tuesday that continuing cuts to U.S. defense spending were causing "corrosive damage to our national security" and he urged them to back the president's request for a big boost in military funding in 2016.
Testifying for the first time as secretary before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carter said military modernization by rivals such as Russia and China threatened to erode the Pentagon's technological advantage over other forces.
"The first pillar of our future force must be ensuring that we maintain, and extend, our technological edge over any potential adversary," he said in written testimony.
He said President Barack Obama's request for a $534 billion Pentagon base budget plus $51 billion for overseas military operations would help the department repair equipment, restore training levels and invest in new weapons for the future, factors put on hold because of budget cuts and ongoing wars.
The president's Pentagon base budget request for 2016, the next fiscal year, exceeds federal spending caps by some $35 billion, a proposal one Republican lawmaker last week described as a "fantasy." Unless Congress agrees to lift the funding limits, across-the-board cuts would go into effect, reducing defense spending to about $499 billion.
"The great tragedy is that this corrosive damage to our national security is not the result of objective factors, logic or reason," Carter told the panel, noting that the forced spending reductions were "purely the fallout of political gridlock."
Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned the panel in written testimony that the combination of growing threats and declining budgets means "our ability to assure our allies is in question and our advantages over our adversaries are shrinking."
"This is a major strategic challenge affecting not only our military, but ultimately, America’s leadership in the global world order," he said. "We are at a point where our national aspirations are at risk of exceeding our available resources."
Dempsey said if the military were forced to comply with current spending limits, it would have to reduce the size of the force by 20 percent and cut the number of troops deployed overseas by a third.
Top military leaders have warned that continuing budget cuts would leave the department unable to execute the president's national defense strategy.
Dempsey said even with the president's increase, the military's ability to execute the strategy would only be "at the lower ragged edge of manageable risk."
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)