With days left in his tenure, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the Pentagon is facing its "most serious readiness crisis" in more than a decade amid the advent of automatic budget cuts and lawmakers' failure to pass a 2013 defense spending bill.
"It is difficult to believe that the Congress will simply stand aside, fail to make the decisions necessary to resolve this crisis, and allow the defense, economy and quality of life in America to be irreparably damaged," Mr. Panetta said Wednesday at Georgetown University, in his last major speech as defense secretary.
If Congress does not by March 1, the Pentagon must begin cutting $500 billion from its budget over the next decade, with $46 billion to be excised by Sept. 30 while facing a $35 billion shortfall in operating funds, Mr. Panetta said.
"Make no mistake, if these cuts happen there will be a serious disruption in defense programs and a sharp decline in our military readiness," he said.
The Defense Department and the armed services are taking short-term actions to prepare for the cuts, including hiring freezes, halting facilities maintenance and laying off temporary and short-term employees, he said.
"We looking at putting 46,000 jobs at risk," he said. "You don't think that's going to hurt the economy?"
If the automatic cuts begin, as many as 800,000 civilian Pentagon workers could be furloughed for 22 days, the readiness of two-thirds of the Army's brigade combat teams outside Afghanistan would be reduced, the Navy would have to shrink its global operations, and the Air Force would cut flying hours and weapons systems maintenance.
"This is not a game. This is reality," said Mr. Panetta, who is expected be replaced soon as Pentagon chief by former Sen. Chuck Hagel. "These steps would seriously damage a fragile American economy, and they would degrade our ability to respond to crisis precisely at a time of rising instability across the globe — North Africa to the Strait of Hormuz, from Syria to North Korea."
"We would have no choice but to implement these kinds of measures if Congress fails to carry out its basic responsibility to the American people," he said. "This is no way to govern the United States of America."
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