Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Thursday warned Congress that automatic cuts in defense spending would force the Pentagon to reduce its presence in some trouble spots, including Africa, a hotbed of al Qaeda franchise groups.
Mr. Panetta previously raised the specter of a dysfunctional, “hollow” U.S. military if automatic budget reductions force the Pentagon to squeeze out $1 trillion in spending over 10 years.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, the defense chief began providing details about the likely effects if Congress’ deficit-reduction supercommittee fails to reach a consensus, which would prompt automatic, across-the-board cuts.
Mr. Panetta called the automatic cuts, part of a last-ditch negotiating move by President Obama and Congress, both “blind” and “mindless.”
He said nearly $500 billion in defense cuts already being imposed are “taking us to the edge.” Another $500 billion would be “truly devastating,” he added.
Asked by Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the committee’s ranking Democrat, to give examples of the increased risks, Mr. Panetta said the Pentagon presumably would want to keep robust forward-deployed troops, ships and warplanes in the Pacific region to counter China and in the Middle East, where al Qaeda’s is based and Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.
“Then, just by virtue of the numbers that we’re dealing with, we will probably have to reduce our presence elsewhere, presence perhaps in Latin America, presence in Africa,” Mr. Panetta said. “And so, if you’re talking about risk, you know, part of the risk would be having less of a presence in those areas.”
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that the Pentagon is conducting a strategic review to try to fit a smaller budget to fewer missions, such as in Africa.
“Our presence on the African continent is part of our network of building partners, of gaining intelligence,” Gen. Dempsey said. “And then when targeting approaches or targeting reaches the level of refinement, we can act on it.
“But we have to be networked against the specific threat you’re talking about, and part of that requires our presence in Africa.”
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Pentagon has increased significantly its land, sea and air presence in Africa, creating the first Africa Command. This elevated the continent’s importance with the Pacific, Middle East and Europe, which are designated for distinct U.S. military headquarters and forces.
Of particular concern is Somalia, home to al Qaeda-type militants and deadly sea pirates, and North Africa, where al Qaeda established a spinoff group determined to destabilize governments.
The Pentagon is developing its fiscal 2013 budget, which goes to Congress in February. But defense officials say they cannot make all final decisions on which weapons to cancel or active forces to cut until Congress makes final deficit decisions this year.
A Republican staff report to Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, says a $1 trillion reduction would mean the Army and Marine Corps would have to shed 200,000 troops.
The report also says a “worst case” scenario would be defense spending plummeting from a planned $596 billion in 2013 to $491 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2012.
Even under current cuts, “we’re going to have a smaller force,” Mr. Panetta said.
Mr. Smith agreed that going to “sequestration,” as automatic cuts are called, would be “frankly insane.” He called on Republicans to end their no-new-taxes stand in deficit-reduction talks.
“I believe that we need to put everything on the table in trying to deal with our budget deficit,” he said. “I am so concerned about cuts, not just in [the Department of Defense] but in other parts of our budget, that I’m willing to say that we need more revenue, that we can’t take that piece off the table.”
Gen. Dempsey signaled that the Pentagon’s largest procurement program, the F-35 Lightning multipurpose fighter, faces reductions, though not cancellation.
He said it would be difficult for all three variants of the fighter jet to survive the current budget scrubbing.
Analysts say the Pentagon may terminate the Marine Corps’ vertical takeoff and landing version of the F-35.
The bipartisan, 12-member supercommittee must reach a deal on reducing the deficit by $1.5 trillion next month, or else $1.2 trillion in spending cuts will be made — most of which will be borne by the Pentagon.
On Thursday, several congressional Democrats sent letters to the supercommittee urging its members to aggressively find savings but also to be cautious about cutting programs that lawmakers care about most, the Associated Press reported.
Republicans and Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee told the supercommittee in separate letters that the Pentagon’s budget already has been reduced sufficiently and additional cuts would hurt national security.
Republicans have argued that most of the government’s savings should come from spending less on government programs, including entitlements such as Medicare, while Democrats have insisted that tax increases be part of a final agreement.