Tom Vanden Brook, @tvandenbrook, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - Troop cuts and civilian layoffs are imminent unless Congress and the White House reach a deal to avert another round of automatic budget cuts this fall, according to the Pentagon's No. 2 official.
Ashton Carter, the deputy Defense secretary, told USA TODAY on Monday that unless Congress and the White House reach a deal to avert the cuts, the Pentagon will have to make a series of tough and dangerous cuts in military and civilian personnel. The cuts, known as the sequester, call for about $500 billion in defense cuts through the end of the decade.
"We can't rule out reductions in the civilian workforce and involuntary separations of military personnel," Carter said. "That's something none of us wants to do. But again if you have to have reductions this fast and this steep you have to go where it is possible to get money that fast. Those are not the most strategically and managerially sound places."
The Pentagon recently completed a review of military-spending alternatives directed by Carter that forecast an austere future complete with troop levels not seen since 1940.
Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the Strategic Choices and Management Review indicated a smaller force with modern weapons or a bigger one with older gear.
The review indicates the Army could shrink to 380,000 soldiers, and the Marine Corps would bottom out at 150,000. There are 540,000 soldiers and 195,000 Marines now.
In 2011, Congress and White House reached a budget deal that avoided government default. To spur negotiations on a long-term deficit reduction plan, both sides agreed to automatic cuts known as the "sequester." Negotiations failed and the first wave of cuts hit March 1. Over 10 years, sequestration would require the Pentagon to cut $500 billion. That comes on top of previously agreed military budget reduction of $487 billion.
Without an agreement, the next round of sequester cuts will begin Oct. 1, the start of the 2014 fiscal year. They will require a $52 billion reduction in Pentagon spending.
Other nations will take note of those cuts and the U.S. inability to reach a budget deal, Carter said.
"They're watching what we do," Carter said. "They're wondering what is going on over here. Is the United States going to be the same kind of military power as an ally, or that they're used to fearing as a potential opponent? We want them to understand that this is still going to be the world's greatest military for a long time to come whatever these budget scenarios we face in the future.
"There is danger. There is risk associated with behaving in such a cavalier fashion with respect to spending for national defense."
It's not necessarily so dire, said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University and former defense official in the Clinton administration. The cuts, even dramatic ones, can be accomplished without irreparable damage to national security.
Natural attrition will reduce the civilian payroll as the Pentagon workforce has many employees in their 50s, he said. Targeted buyouts could trim the payroll further. The Army and Marine Corps could take significant losses as well, given that the troop-intensive era of counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is ending.
The Pentagon could save even more by reducing its overhead, Adams said. Carter announced the first step toward that last week by calling for a 20% cut in spending on management headquarters starting at the top in the Pentagon.
That step could be repeated throughout the military, Adams said.
"There is sufficient wiggle room in overhead at the Pentagon and in the services to make the cuts from sequestration much less draconian," Adams said.
Such deep budget cuts, which Carter opposes, would cause less damage if the Pentagon had more time and flexibility in making them. Congress can help by delaying the deepest cuts.
"We need the support of Congress to get out of this ditch," Carter said.
The stakes couldn't be higher, Carter said. After a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military lost focus on other parts of the world. President Obama has ordered a shift in emphasis to Asia and the Pacific -- a theater, Carter said, "that we took our eye off of for 10 years."
During that time, countries in the region have developed weapons that can destroy U.S. ships, Carter said. He didn't mention China by name, but it is the main military competitor in the region.