Joint Chiefs nominee warns against deeper defense cuts

At confirmation hearing, Gen. Martin Dempsey says cutting more than $400 billion over the next 12 years would carry heavy risks for the military.

As Congress and the White House remain locked in negotiations over competing deficit-reduction plans, President Obama's nominee to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Tuesday warned against deep cuts to defense spending.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Martin Dempsey said that any efforts to cut more than $400 billion from security accounts over the next 12 years would carry heavy risks for the military.

Obama in April proposed the $400 billion cut to security accounts, for which the Pentagon is expected to be the biggest target. But some in Congress have pushed for far deeper cuts - perhaps more than doubling Obama's plan, although no final number or strategy has yet been agreed to. During a speech on Monday night, Obama was vague on defense, saying only that cuts to the Pentagon would be in the "hundreds of billions of dollars."

A cut in the range of $800 billion "would be extraordinarily difficult and very high risk," Dempsey said on Tuesday.

The four-star general, who was sworn in as Army chief in April and quickly became Obama's pick to be the military's next top officer, said that finding $400 billion in security cuts is difficult. Officials are currently combing through the Pentagon's accounts to find those savings, with plans to wrap up the review this fall.

Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., acknowledged that there are savings to be found in the defense budget. But he criticized the administration for setting a number for security cuts before completing a strategic review.

The Defense Department's budget, which accounts for more than half of all federal discretionary spending, is very much on the table during the ongoing negotiations to increase the debt ceiling. Obama's proposal to cut $400 billion in security spending may ultimately be only a starting point.

Dempsey said that spending cuts would affect the Defense Department's broad budget portfolio, from equipment funds to accounts that pay for operations and training. But he warned that making cuts while the United States is involved in two wars only increases the difficulty of finding significant savings.

"That adds a degree of complexity and a degree of uncertainty that I think we can't discount," he told the committee.