WASHINGTON— U.S. military leaders are warning of severe consequences if automatic budget cuts are triggered on March 1st. The threat of such cuts is already having an impact, forcing the Pentagon to decrease costs by reducing the number of aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf.
Starting next month, the Pentagon is facing $46 billion in spending reductions unless the U.S. Congress acts to prevent them.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the results will be devastating.
“If these cuts happen, there will be a serious disruption in defense programs and a sharp decline in our military readiness," said Panetta.
The Pentagon has announced it is reducing the number of aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf from two to one because of the possible budget cuts.
The second carrier was sent to the Middle East amid escalating tensions with Iran - specifically, to ensure the strategic Strait of Hormuz remains open to shipping.
Iran has warned repeatedly it could close the waterway, in a counter-threat to a feared Israeli or U.S. air strike against its nuclear program. The strait is the transit route for about 20 percent of the world’s oil supply.
Maren Leed is a senior military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“That is the fear is that they [Iran] will be more aggressive or at least increase their threats to do these kinds of things, and that will in turn make their neighbors more concerned and some of our allies more concerned," said Leed.
Senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution says having only one aircraft carrier in the region should not have an immediate impact on security issues regarding Iran.
“So all it does is temporarily, at times, reduce our standing capability to launch a pre-emptive strike, which at the moment we have no particular desire to do," said O’Hanlon.
The threat of spending cuts is forcing the Pentagon to make plans to furlough workers, and reduce training and operations by the military services.
Defense Secretary Panetta says the cuts, known as sequestration, are dangerous.
“These steps would seriously damage a fragile American economy and they would degrade our ability to respond to crisis precisely at a time of rising instability across the globe," he said.
In addition to the more immediate cuts, U.S. troops are likely to see a smaller pay hike next year than initially planned.
Maren Leed of the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
“The military will always respond and do what is asked of them, but the impact is, it will take longer, it will cost more lives, it will be more difficult and the risks of success go down," she said.
Leed says budget concerns are having a negative impact on morale among members of the military.