Panetta says US at risk of being second-rate power

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 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 ten years mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.

Further complicating the military’s fiscal picture is the lack of a new defense budget. Congress hasn’t approved one. Lawmakers have instead been passing bills called continuing resolutions, which keep spending levels at the same rate as the year before. That means the Pentagon is operating on less money than it planned for, and that compounds the problem, Panetta said.

Panetta said that the department understood that it needed to do its part to help bring down the federal deficit and has been adjusting its plans to deal with the lower spending levels. But adding sequestration on top of that creates an untenable situation, he said.

The result of the sequestration cuts, Panetta said, is that “instead of being a first-rate power in the world, we’d turn into a second-rate power.” He added that it would be irresponsible for Congress to allow the cuts to take place. A “sequester was not designed as a mechanism that was supposed to happen,” Panetta said. “It was designed to be so nuts that everybody would do everything possible to make sure it didn’t happen.”

Panetta has been vocal about stopping sequestration because it would leave the military “hollow,” meaning the armed forces would look good on paper but actually lack the training and equipment they need to handle their missions.

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