WASHINGTON Defense Secretary Leon Panetta chided congressional dysfunction and warned that cutting $450 billion in defense spending would take the Pentagon "to the edge" at a hearing on Thursday punctuated by anti-war protests.
Panetta, in his first appearance as Pentagon chief before the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee, said any defense cuts over the $450 billion currently approved for the next decade "will truly devastate our national security."
"I don't say that as scare tactics. I don't say that as a threat. It's a reality," Panetta told the lawmakers, saying his remarks were based on going through the weapons systems, personnel and benefits that may have to be cut to achieve the $450 billion in spending reductions already approved.
Asked whether President Barack Obama agreed with his assessment that there should be no further cuts to defense spending, Panetta said the U.S. president did.
The defense secretary's remarks, which were interrupted by protesters shouting "war machine" and "you are murdering people," come as the Pentagon is working to implement a reduction in national security spending agreed upon between Congress and President Barack Obama in August.
The deal requires $350 billion or $450 billion in cuts over 10 years depending on whether it is compared to the Congressional Budget Office's projections of defense spending or the Pentagon's projections.
Pentagon officials have said the cuts will be difficult but manageable. However, they have expressed concern about a provision that calls for automatic cuts of another $600 billion if a special congressional "super committee" fails to reach a deal to further reduce federal spending.
Some analysts note that Defense Department's budget has nearly doubled over the past decade and say it should be able to manage $1 trillion in spending reductions over a decade without much difficulty.
Panetta, himself a former congressman, expressed concern about whether the super committee would be able to reach a compromise agreement that would avoid further defense cuts. Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been sharply divided over where to cut and whether to raise additional revenue.
"One of the great national security threats is the dysfunctionality of the Congress and its inability to confront the issues that we face now," he told lawmakers. "And I think your concern is that this committee that's been established might fail to provide the leadership that it's been given ... And that concerns me as well."
A group of Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee, led by chairman Buck McKeon, later released a letter they sent to the super committee warning that further defense cuts "will compound deep reductions already imposed and critically compromise national security."
The Pentagon-friendly group of lawmakers quizzed Panetta and Army General Martin Dempsey, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who testified alongside him, about several weapons systems, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Defense Department's costliest procurement project.
Dempsey expressed support for development of Lockheed Martin's radar-evading, next-generation jet but said he was concerned about the ability to pursue three different variants in the current fiscal environment.
The Marine Corps' short-takeoff, vertical landing version of the plane, which could be used off the flight decks on assault ships, was put on probation by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates last year because of production delays and cost overruns. It is currently undergoing testing at sea.
"That's something we'll have to keep an eye on," Dempsey said. "Three variants create some fiscal challenges for us."
Panetta told lawmakers the cuts were forcing the Pentagon to make strategic choices about where to engage globally in the future and where it should take risks and cut back.
While stressing no final decision had been made, he said if the United States decided to maintain its force structure in Asia and the Middle East to guard against Chinese military expansion and threats to Mideast stability, it would likely have to pare back elsewhere in the world.
"Just by virtue of the numbers that we're dealing with, we will probably have to reduce our presence elsewhere, presence perhaps in Latin America, presence in Africa," Panetta said, noting that would be difficult because of concerns about Islamic extremism in parts of Africa.
(Editing by Paul Simao)