WASHINGTON (AP) - 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.
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.