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Panetta: Super Committee Failure Would Hurt Defense

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned lawmakers in a letter today that the military would face substantial problems if House and Senate negotiators fail to come to an agreement on a massive deficit reduction deal by next week.

If the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction deadlocks and automatic across-the-board cuts kick in, Panetta said the consequences would includes the halting of most ship and construction projects, cuts in contractors, and the smallest Air Force in history.

His letter reiterated his previous testimony before Congress while more clearly outlining the potential effects of sequestration — the automatic cuts that would slash roughly $500 billion in defense spending as well as other areas of the federal budget.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) had requested the specifics from the Pentagon in their own letter, sent Nov. 3.

“The impacts of these cuts would be devastating for the Department,” Panetta said in identical letters to both Senators. “Facing such large reductions, we would have to reduce the size of the military sharply. Rough estimates suggest after ten years of these cuts, we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history.

“Unfortunately, while large cuts are being imposed, the threats to national security would not be reduced,” Panetta continued. “As a result, 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.”

McCain and Graham have been working on a plan to fight the enactment of the mandatory defense cuts should the super committee fail to reach agreement by Nov. 23. If the panel deadlocks, $1.2 trillion in cuts would go into effect. Any deal shy of that total would reduce the amount of cuts by an equal amount from the $1.2 trillion “trigger.”

Although Republicans especially have said they would fight the cuts if they were to be enacted, President Barack Obama has said he would not support rolling them back and likely would veto a bill that would do so.

The dire warnings from Obama’s defense secretary and the continued GOP push against defense cuts, however, continue to put pressure on the panel created as part of a deal in August to raise the debt ceiling.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), for example, has repeatedly told reporters he will not address questions regarding a reversal of the cuts because it eases the burden on the super committee to strike a deal.

Moreover, the defense cuts could prove politically complicated, particularly in an election year, for Democrats who are less vocal about reversing them because their existence in the deal protects further cuts to entitlement programs.

One thing is clear: The only way to stop an uproar from the rank and file over the defense trigger is for the super committee to come up with its own plan.

“The consequence of a sequester on the Defense Department would set off a swift decline of the United States as the world’s leading military power. We are staunchly opposed to this draconian action,” McCain and Graham said in a joint statement today. “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.”

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