By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday sharpened his rhetoric against a measure that could force across-the-board cuts of nearly $1 trillion to U.S. defense spending, calling it a "goofy meat-axed approach."
Panetta, speaking to an Army support group, said tight budgets would force the Pentagon to reduce the number of U.S. ground troops as the wars end in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he promised that the cuts would be done in a way that protects soldiers and their families.
"We need to ensure that this is done responsibly and that our soldiers and their families are cared for," he said, adding that changes to benefits would not affect current service members. "We will stand by the promises made to you."
Panetta has been warning the military to brace for difficult cuts as the Pentagon moves to implement a debt reduction agreement approved by 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 panel fails to reach a deal to further reduce federal spending.
"Sequestration, which is this goofy meat-axed approach, would force across-the-board salami-slicing cuts of the worst kind," Panetta told the Association of the U.S. Army.
"It would hollow out the force. It would leave our military deficient in people, in training, in equipment, and unable to adapt when that next security challenge comes along."
"CRAZY DOOMSDAY MECHANISM"
He offered up a terse response to those who dismiss the impact of the projected spending cuts.
"There are some who continue to propose even deeper cuts in defense, arguing that the draconian cuts that are part of this crazy doomsday mechanism called sequester -- a $1 trillion cut, if it takes effect -- somehow won't impact on our national security," Panetta said.
"Let me respond to those claims by echoing that famous World War Two general, (Anthony) McAuliffe, who famously replied to the German surrender demand at Bastogne with a one word answer: 'Nuts,'" Panetta said, drawing huge applause.
The spending cuts come at a hard time for the Pentagon. While U.S. forces are due to leave Iraq by the end of the year, the United States and its NATO allies are still involved in a decade-long war in Afghanistan and are only slowly beginning to transfer security responsibility to local forces.
The Pentagon is under pressure to modernize many of its major systems, from aerial refueling tankers to aircraft carriers, and must be prepared to deal with challenges from Iran and North Korea, which are developing nuclear programs, and China, whose military ability is expanding rapidly.
"We are facing reductions at a time when we confront real threats to the world," Panetta said. "We need an Army that can, as General George Patton used to say, 'Hold the [enemy] by the nose and kick them in the ass.'"
(Editing by Xavier Briand)