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Panetta plays last card, warns Defense cuts could lead to attack on the U.S.

Pentagon head says a reduced Defense budget 'invites aggression.'

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been steadily escalating his warnings about the impact of the deep cuts facing the Pentagon if the congressional super committee fails to reach a deal. On Thursday, he played the last -- and strongest -- card in his deck, arguing that the hundreds of billions of dollars of mandatory cuts would directly imperil U.S. national security.

The Defense chief has spent weeks publicly urging the 12 lawmakers on the panel to reach a deficit-reduction deal. On Tuesday, he departed from his prepared remarks during a speech to top National Guard officials and colorfully called on Congress to reach an agreement.

Lawmakers, Panetta said, needed to understand that U.S. troops "are willing to put their lives on the line to sacrifice for this country; you sure as hell can sacrifice to provide a little leadership to get the solution we need in order to solve this problem."

He went even further on Thursday, using arguably the strongest rhetorical weapon in his arsenal. Mandatory defense cuts, he warned, would weaken the armed forces to the point that enemies would be emboldened to attack the U.S.

"In effect, it invites aggression," Panetta said during the new conference, just his second since taking office in July.

The remark underscores the Pentagon's growing panic over the possibility of deep mandatory cuts. Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are already struggling to meet White House demands for $450 billion in spending reductions over the next 10 years. The so-called "sequestration" which would go into effect if the super committee is unable to strike a deficit-reduction agreement would force the Pentagon to cut nearly half a trillion dollars more.

Panetta said those cuts would leave the military "a hollow force" which "retains its shell but lacks a core."

"It's a ship without sailors. It's a brigade without bullets. It's an air wing without enough trained pilots," Panetta said. "It's a paper tiger."

The Pentagon's concerns about such cuts have led Panetta and the chiefs to insert themselves directly into a domestic political debate, a move typically eschewed by the Defense Department's senior military and civilian leadership.

Panetta, a former White House chief of staff and Office of Management and Budget director, has led the charge. A few weeks ago, he said the Pentagon should be exempted from future spending reductions and that lawmakers should instead try to close the budget deficit by cutting entitlement programs like Social Security and raising taxes. He repeated that policy prescription on Thursday, arguing that "additional revenues" - a code phrase for tax increases - should be part of any budget deal.

The Pentagon lobbying is paying off on the Hill, where a growing number of lawmakers are talking openly about removing the sequestration language.

Earlier this week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said hawkish lawmakers were working to shield the Defense Department from further cuts in case the super committee can't reach a deal to cut the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

"Congress cannot define, refute the actions of future Congresses. So sequestration is not engraved in golden tablets, it is a notional aspiration," McCain said. "I think we have sufficient support to prevent those kinds of cuts from being enacted."

Panetta, for his part, is running out of options for lobbying the Hill. He has warned, in the strongest language possible, that deeper cuts would weaken the armed forces, spark tens of thousands of layoffs among major defense contractors, and erode the military's fighting capabilities to an extent that would take years to restore. Having now also warned that the reductions could also lead to an attack on the U.S., the Defense chief has no more rhetorical cards to play.