Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta gives a speech to students and faculty at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 6. (Mike Morones / Defense News)
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The U.S. military might not be able to respond to a crisis overseas if sweeping federal budget cuts go into effect in March, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.
Panetta's comments come one day after President Obama urged Congress to pass deficit reduction legislation that eliminates or delays those spending cuts.
"I strongly support those efforts," Panetta said during a Feb. 6 speech at Georgetown University in Washington.
But Panetta said a temporary delay to sequestration would only "kick the can down the road" and continue the uncertainty that has hovered over the DoD budget for more than a year.
"My greatest concern today is that we are putting our national security at risk by lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis to budget crisis," Panetta said.
For nearly his entire year-and-a-half tenure as defense secretary, Panetta has been outspoken on the topic of sequestration — about $500 billion in defense spending cuts over the next decade. He has argued DoD has already paid its share toward deficit reduction.
The Pentagon has already cut $487 billion from planned spending over the next decade as mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011. But Congress' inability to pass further deficit reduction could lead to the sequestration cuts. The Pentagon would be forced to chop $46 billion from its budget between March and September should those cuts take effect.
During his speech, Panetta questioned the military's ability to respond to a crisis should sequestration go into effect.
"These steps would seriously damage a fragile American economy, and they would degrade our ability to respond to crises precisely at a time of rising instability across the globe — North Africa to the Strait of Hormuz, from Syria to North Korea." Panetta said. "But we would have no choice but to implement these kinds of measures if Congress fails to carry out its basic responsibilities."
Panetta, who is planning to retire as soon as a successor is confirmed, used some of his most forceful language to criticize lawmakers for not quickly moving to avert sequestration and pass a defense appropriations bill.
During his confirmation hearing last week, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, Obama's nominee for defense secretary, said he is opposed to sequestration, but if the cuts happen, DoD would be prepared.