WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation's military leaders warned a House panel on Wednesday that cuts in defense spending beyond those already planned would deeply wound the armed services and jeopardize U.S. global influence.
The chiefs of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force testified that bigger budget reductions would limit their ability to recover from 10 years of combat and undermine their efforts to retain experienced troops.
Their remarks reflected a consensus in the Pentagon, shared by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, but some private analysts believe the warnings of dire consequences from steeper spending cuts are overblown.
Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said a decade-long pullback in U.S. defense spending could lead potential adversaries to question the credibility of U.S. military power and challenge U.S. interests abroad.
The Department of Defense's budget has nearly doubled to $700 billion in the 10 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Those numbers do not include the trillion-plus spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A special bipartisan committee now is searching for agreement on at least $1.2 trillion in overall spending cuts over 10 years. If it fails to do so by Nov. 23 or if Congress rejects its plan, then automatic, across-the-board cuts of $1.2 trillion kick in, with half coming from defense. That would be in addition to defense cuts of $450 billion to $465 billion that have already been promised over the coming decade.
The supercommittee is so far showing little sign of progressing toward a deal. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the panel, said Tuesday it is entering "the final critical phase" of its work. She warned that both sides must compromise — a clear shot at Republicans, who so far have been unwilling to accept higher taxes as part of a deal.
The political wrangling has caused deep concern at the Pentagon, where there is worry that although troops are withdrawing from Iraq and the administration aims to wind down the war in Afghanistan, the cost of recovering from those conflicts and preparing for future crises will be higher than commonly understood.
Under Mr. Panetta, the Pentagon also has committed to maintaining — and possibly increasing — the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, while also keeping a substantial presence in the Middle East.
Gen. Odierno said that cuts of as much as $1 trillion would mean an "unacceptable" risk to U.S. national security.
"Cuts of this magnitude would be catastrophic to the military and, in the case of the Army, would significantly reduce our capability and capacity to assure our partners abroad, respond to crises and deter our potential adversaries, while threatening readiness and potentially the all-volunteer force," Gen. Odierno said.
The Army chief said steeper budget cuts also would hit the National Guard, thereby reducing its ability to respond to domestic disasters.
The Navy's chief, Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, said defense cuts of as much as $1 trillion would cause "irreversible" damage to the military.
Military leaders have said they can manage currently planned cuts of $450 billion to $465 billion over 10 years, and some private defense analysts say larger reductions would not cause catastrophic damage to the military.
Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University and a former budget official in the Clinton White House, is a critic of what he calls misplaced fears about defense spending cuts.
"In fact, were defense budgets to decline by $465 billion from the current (Pentagon) projections, it would be the most moderate and shallow build down we have ever experienced since the end of the Korean War," Mr. Adams wrote in a blog post.
"So there is little reason to fear, little reason to cry 'doomsday' as we manage this build down," he added.
Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, told the House committee that steeper defense cuts would undermine the military's ability to maintain a large presence in key parts of the world. He argued that if the U.S. military were compelled to pull back, other countries such as China would fill the void.
Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, made a similar argument.
"If we want to be a global power, we've got to be out and about," Gen. Schwartz said.