WASHINGTON — The number of U.S. ground forces would drop to levels not seen since 1940, the Navy would drop to the smallest number of ships since 1915 and the Air Force would be the smallest ever, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in warning Congress of the dire implications of deeper defense cuts.
The Pentagon chief on Monday offered a litany of drastic steps triggered by the automatic, across-the-board cuts if Congress' supercommittee fails to come up with a $1.2 trillion deficit-cutting plan by Nov. 23. If the panel stumbles, the Pentagon faces some $500 billion in reductions in projected spending over 10 years — on top of the $450 billion already under way.
"Devastating for the department," Panetta wrote in a letter to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Senate Armed Services Committee's top Republican, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a panel member. The two lawmakers had written the Pentagon chief earlier this month seeking specifics.
Panetta's letter came on the eve of his appearance before the committee. The Pentagon chief and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will face the panel Tuesday to answer questions about the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by year's end. Lawmakers are expected to press them about the defense budget and the handling of service members' remains at the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base.
Several Republicans on the panel were angered by President Barack Obama's announcement last month that the remaining U.S. forces, nearly 40,000, would be leaving Iraq, consistent with the agreement reached by Obama's predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush, and the Baghdad government. U.S. officials have signaled that they may move 4,000 of the troops to Kuwait.
"This decision will be viewed as a strategic victory for our enemies in the Middle East, especially the Iranian regime, which has worked relentlessly to ensure a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq," McCain said on the day of Obama's announcement.
The war, which has lasted more than eight years, left 4,400 American military dead and more than 32,000 wounded.
In his budget letter, Panetta said the automatic cuts would add up to a 23 percent reduction in the first year alone of 2013. After a decade, "we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history," the Pentagon chief said.
Panetta, who has used apocalyptic terms such as "doomsday," ''hollow force" and "paper tiger" to describe the cuts, 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 one-time 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-launched ballistic missiles and air-launched missiles and bombs.
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.
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 who routinely target U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Panetta's comments add pressure to the supercommittee a little more than a week 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. 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."