UPDATE 1-Deeper U.S. defense cuts could be 'tragic' - Gates
* Gates warns against 'short-sighted' defense cuts
* Pentagon reduces war funding in fiscal 2012 budget
WASHINGTON, Feb 16 (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Congress on Wednesday against making deeper spending cuts than those already proposed, telling lawmakers "we still live in a very dangerous and often unstable world."
Defense is one of largest chunks of the U.S. budget but Republicans, who made big gains in November's congressional elections with a message of austerity, so far have shown little appetite for paring back military spending at a time of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon last month unveiled plans to cut $78 billion in defense spending over five years. Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration who plans to step down as defense secretary later this year, pushed back against some lawmakers wanting even bigger reductions.
"We shrink from our global security responsibilities at our peril," Gates told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
"Retrenchment brought about by short-sighted cuts could well lead to costlier and more tragic consequences later -- indeed as they have in the past."
The Pentagon this week formally rolled out a record base budget for fiscal year 2012 of $553 billion, up $22 billion from the level enacted for 2010. But additional overseas war funding is down $41.5 billion. [ID:nN14279656]
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged the military must become more efficient and disciplined given a soaring national debt that he said was "our greatest threat to our national security."
"If we as a country do not address our fiscal imbalances in the near term, our national power will erode and the costs to our ability to maintain and sustain influence could be great," Mullen said.
"We must carefully and deliberately balance the imperatives of a constrained budget environment with the requirements we place on our military in sustaining and enhancing our security."
Gates said the military still needed to remain strong and agile enough to face threats ranging from militants to states "developing new capabilities that target our traditional strengths."
He cited Iran and North Korea, whose nuclear and missile programs have alarmed the West, as well as China, whose heavy investments in defense appear directed at countering U.S. military capabilities in the Pacific.
"Surely we should learn from our national experience since World War One, that drastic reductions in the size and strength of the U.S. military make armed conflict all the more likely with an unacceptably high cost in American blood and treasure," Gates said. (Editing by John O'Callaghan and Mohammad Zargham)