Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/Defense Department

Budget slashing hits U.S. ability to deal with global dangers, Panetta says

'This is not a game. This is reality,' Defense Secretary says.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned on Wednesday that looming massive federal budget cutbacks would undermine the nations’ capacity to deal militarily with North Korea and other hot spots around the world.

“This is not a game. This is reality,” Panetta said just days before his departure from the Pentagon.

Congress and President Obama have until March 1 to find $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions and avoid across-the-board spending cuts under so-called “sequestration.” Should they fail, the process set by the 2011 Budget Control Act would force the Defense Department to slash spending by $46 billion for the last six months of this fiscal year, Panetta said.

The Pentagon also faces a $35 billion shortfall because Congress has yet to approve a final budget for the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30.

All of that comes on top of $487 million in budget reductions made mandatory over 10 years under the legislation, Panetta noted.

Defense officials have already cautioned that sequestration could impact plans for a new long-range bomber and other strategic operations.

The department’s response this year alone would include furloughing up to 800,000 civilian staffers for nearly a month, reductions in naval operations around the world, curbing Air Force flying times and weapons upkeep, and lowered assistance to troops not involved in a current military conflict, Panetta told an audience at Georgetown University.

A new Air Force document indicates the service alone would have to take various steps to deal with $12.4 billion in sequestration cuts and another $1.8 billion hit linked to the budget situation. These could include cutting operational hours at some missile warning radar bases and pushing back procurement of two missile defense satellites.

“These steps would seriously damage the 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 Straits of Hormuz, from Syria to North Korea," according to the DOD head.

As Panetta spoke, North Korea was believed to be readying for its third nuclear test and threatening to take even more aggressive measures against its enemies. The Syrian civil war continues to spike worries about security or use of the nation’s chemical weapons, while some Iranian officials have discussed blocking the Straits of Hormuz in response to international sanctions targeting the nation’s contested nuclear work.

“North Korea, Iran. We need to have a power presence in those areas because that’s where the greatest potential for conflict lies,” Panetta said.

President Obama on Tuesday called on Congress to prepare a plan of spending cuts and tax changes that would give at least temporary reprieve from the sequester deadline. Republicans quickly pushed back against any tax boosts.

“Even if Congress acts again temporarily to prevent the effects of this crisis … if they only kick the can down the road, it continues a long shadow of doubt about whether the fundamental problems we face can really be resolved,” Panetta said.

Panetta is preparing to step down as Pentagon chief. His exact exit date remains unclear, as there is significant GOP opposition to his designated successor, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel.