By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. military officer said on Thursday that steep, across-the-board budget cuts have left American armed forces out of balance and less prepared to meet new security threats, a problem that can only worsen with new reductions on the horizon.
Army General Martin Dempsey, speaking to a Senate panel considering his nomination to a new two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said one of his key jobs was to ensure U.S. forces are ready and balanced to address any challenge, but "so far we are getting it wrong."
"We are already out of balance due to the magnitude and mechanism - not to mention the steep descent - of budget cuts," Dempsey told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He urged them to help relieve the department's budget uncertainty.
Dempsey's remarks came as the Pentagon is facing nearly $1 trillion in cuts to projected spending over the next decade, including $37 billion in across-the-board reductions that were imposed earlier this year as the department was already months into its fiscal year.
The cuts, for which the Pentagon had not initially planned in its fiscal 2014 budget, have forced the department to cancel or delay ship deployments, ground air wings and cancel or postpone training. Some 680,000 civilian defense employees began taking 11 days of unpaid leave last week.
Dempsey told lawmakers that if the across-the-board cuts, which are known as sequestration, continue as required by law at a pace of $52 billion a year for the next decade, it would continue to erode military preparedness.
"We will not be able to find the money we need to achieve the level of sequestration cuts without a dramatic impact in our readiness," Dempsey told lawmakers.
He said reductions in the size of the military force eventually would help lower costs and enable the services to improve their readiness. But at that point "you're dealing with a smaller force ... I think too small."
Dempsey's remarks came a day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel returned from a three-day visit to military bases across the southeast, where he delivered the sobering news that he expects the Pentagon to face another $52 billion in across-the-board cuts next year.
Hagel said reductions of that magnitude will inevitably force the Pentagon to begin eliminating jobs. He also announced that he and top military leaders would cut spending 20 percent on the offices of the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the headquarters of the military combatant commanders.
The Pentagon said those reductions, which would take place between 2015 and 2019, would save $1.5 billion to $2 billion annually.
The Budget Control Act of 2011 directed the Pentagon to cut $487 billion in spending over a decade. The act ordered another $500 billion in defense cuts over a decade unless Congress and the White House could agree on a compromise package of alternatives.
So far no deal has been reached, and the cuts, known as sequestration, went into effect in March for the first time.
(Reporting by David Alexander; editing by Jackie Frank)