WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Friday the United States would become a "second-rate power" if Congress and the White House fail to reach a budget deal that would avoid an extra $500 billion in military budget cuts over the next 10 years.
The Army would be forced to slash its ranks by an additional 100,000 soldiers over 10 years if the process called sequestration went into effect, Panetta said in an interview with USA TODAY. That reduction would be in addition to the 80,000 soldiers it plans to shed over the next five years to a force of about 490,000. The Marine Corps will drop about 20,000 troops under the current plan, which calls on the Pentagon to reduce spending by $487 billion over the next decade.
Congress has until March 1 to reach a deal to stop the cuts, which were created in a summer 2011 deal between Congress and President Obama to raise the nation's debt ceiling.
"We are the world's most powerful military, and we use that to promote peace and stability in the world," Panetta said. "It would be a shameful act of irresponsibility if Congress just stood to the side and let sequester take place. It would turn America from a first-rate power into a second-rate power."
With the smaller force - coupled with mandatory reductions in training and maintenance - the military would be able to handle its commitment in Afghanistan and forces in the Middle East but little else, he said.
"When we're called upon to do other crises, whether it is in Syria or Mali or North Africa or elsewhere, we may not be able to respond," Panetta said.
Panetta made his remarks on the budget in an exit interview from his office at the Pentagon. He plans to leave office soon, assuming Chuck Hagel, the former senator from Nebraska, wins confirmation to succeed him.
Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution, said the troop cuts envisioned by Panetta sound plausible. America becoming a second-rate power may, however, be an exaggeration, he said.
"The world will suffer from a weaker (U.S. military) long before we become a second-rate power if the cuts are made this unwisely," O'Hanlon said. "So the spirit of his comments is correct, even if the literal argument can be contested."
The cuts would have a major impact immediately, he said. The Pentagon is about halfway through its budget year, which began Oct. 1. It would have to absorb $46 billion in cuts to its $535 billion budget before Sept. 30.
The armed services have begun planning for budget reductions and warning in documents about programs that will be affected. The Air Force will throttle back on flight training, and Navy ships won't steam as often, and the Army will reduce utility costs at its posts.
"If sequester goes into effect, there is no question that it will create a critical readiness crisis in the military," Panetta said.