WASHINGTON (AP) -- The automatic budget cuts due to go into effect next month are "the collateral damage of political gridlock," a senior Pentagon official told a congressional committee Tuesday.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter urged lawmakers to put aside their partisan differences and head off the reductions, saying the looming cuts known as sequestration are "particularly tragic" because they are avoidable.
"It's not because discretionary spending cuts are the answer to our nation's fiscal challenge; do the math," Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "It's not in reaction to a change to a more peaceful world. It's not due to a breakthrough in military technology or a new strategic insight. It's not because paths of revenue growth and entitlement spending have been explored and exhausted."
The potential for the cuts to kick in on March 1 is the result of Congress' failure to trim the deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade. The Pentagon faces a $46 billion budget reduction in the seven months starting in March and ending in September, Carter said. The automatic cuts would be in addition to a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.
Further complicating the military's fiscal picture is the lack of a budget for the current fiscal year. Congress hasn't approved one. Lawmakers have instead been passing bills called continuing resolutions, which keep spending levels at the same rate as the year before. That means the Pentagon is operating on less money than planned, and that compounds the problem, defense officials said.
Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, and the uniformed chiefs or vice chiefs of the service branches appeared before the committee along with Carter. Adm. Mark Ferguson, the vice chief of naval operations, testified in place of Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations.
Dempsey said "military readiness is in jeopardy due to the convergence of unprecedented budget factors." If the situation isn't fixed, he said, the armed forces "will have much less of everything and therefore be able to provide fewer options to our nation's leaders."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week said that the United States is at risk of becoming a second-rate power if sequestration goes into effect. If the reductions are allowed to stand, Panetta said he would have to throw the country's national defense strategy "out the window."
The Defense Department said last week it is cutting its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf region from two carriers to one, a move that represents one of the most significant effects of sequestration. The U.S. has maintained two aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf for much of the last two years.
The deployments of the USS Harry S Truman and the USS Gettysburg, a guided-missile cruiser, are being delayed as part of the Navy's plan to deal with the budget uncertainty.
If a 2013 budget isn't passed, the Navy will have to stop the refueling overhauls to two other carriers, the USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and delay the construction of other ships, Ferguson told the committee.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, called the budget situation "dire" and "unprecedented." The Army's top priority, he said, is to ensure that soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Korea and those next to deploy are prepared and ready. But close to 80 percent of the force — those not in Afghanistan or Korea or deploying this year — will have their training curtailed, he said.