Pentagon's nightmare: $1 trillion in cuts

@CNNMoney October 20, 2011: 6:32 AM ET
The Pentagon and its allies are worried about huge spending cuts if the congressional debt committee fails to reach a deal.

The Pentagon and its allies are worried about huge spending cuts if the congressional debt committee fails to reach a deal.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- What's the easiest way to scare the biggest, baddest fighting force on the planet? Budget cuts.

Already facing a $350 billion reduction in funding over the next decade, top Pentagon officials are worried that number could rise to $1 trillion.

The problem? The debt super committee and gridlock on Capitol Hill.

A product of the debt ceiling deal, the committee must cut at least $1.5 trillion in debt from the overall federal budget over 10 years. If it fails to do that or it deadlocks, automatic cuts will be triggered at the Pentagon. (Super committee: Who are these guys?)

Dubbed "the trigger," defense cuts were supposed to force lawmakers to compromise on debt reduction, acting as a powerful and politically unthinkable deterrent.

But, Washington being Washington, the committee appears to be making precious little progress. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is worried.

Defense spending: Slaying the sacred cow

"It will truly devastate our national defense," Panetta told lawmakers last week. "We will have to hollow it out ... I don't say that as scare tactics. I don't say it as a threat. It's a reality."

Defense hawks are also up in arms. Sen. John McCain suggested last week that if the super committee fails to reach an agreement, Congress should nullify the Pentagon budget cuts.

"The Congress is not bound by this," McCain said. "It's something we passed. We can reverse it."

Why all the hubbub? An awful lot of ships, planes, weapons systems and soldiers are at stake.

The Pentagon is facing a worst case scenario of up to $1 trillion in defense cuts over the next decade if the super committee fails, according to an analysis by the Center for a New American Security, a defense think tank.

"That's a fairly drastic drop-off in defense spending," said Travis Sharp, one of the report's authors. "I'd call that a cliff."

The center estimates that the Pentagon can absorb up to $550 billion in budget cuts without affecting the military's "ability to protect vital American interests worldwide, engage key allies and modernize after a decade of grueling ground wars."

But if cuts reach $1 trillion, the military -- and its mission -- will look very different.

According to the report, the Army and Marines might be forced to cut troop strength to pre-2001 levels. Ships would go unbuilt, aircraft orders would be cancelled and capabilities diminished.

War in an age of deficits

The United States would no longer be able engage in two major conflicts at the same time.

"Does the world come crumbling down? No," Sharp said. "But political leaders would have to be far more disciplined about using force. And quite frankly they have not been very disciplined over the last 65 years."

Cuts that total near $1 trillion would likely force the military and its civilian leadership to rethink strategy -- and change the American military's place in the world.

"The major cuts to ground forces and strike fighters ... risk sending a message of receding U.S. power in a dangerous world," the report said. To top of page

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