VICENZA, Italy — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sharply criticized lawmakers in Washington for failing to address looming defense spending cuts set to begin in March.
American soldiers based in Italy brought up the fiscal situation several times during a meeting with Panetta, who is in the middle of a weeklong trip meeting with defense leaders across Europe.
“If I’ve got men and women in uniform that put their lives on the line in order to fight for this country, [lawmakers] can have the small bit of the courage ... to do what you have to do,” Panetta told members of the 173rd Airborne.
The Pentagon is facing $500 billion in spending cuts over the next 10 years if Congress and the White House do not come up with a plan to lower the U.S. deficit by March. DoD is also operating at 2012 budget levels since lawmakers have not passed a 2013 defense appropriations bill.
If these cuts are put in place, the Pentagon would be forced to forgo ship and aircraft maintenance, Panetta said last week. Those types of cuts, defense officials say, pose severe readiness risks. Civilian workers would also face furloughs.
At the event in Italy, soldiers questioned how these cuts would affect their civilian counterparts and families.
Panetta said their fate is in the hands of Congress.
“If I face another half a trillion in cuts, then all bets are off,” Panetta said. “I don’t know what the hell to tell you. We’re all going to pay a hell of a price.”
The Pentagon is already cutting its budget by $487 billion over the next decade. Sequestration would double that number. Military pay is the only part of the defense budget that would not be cut under sequestration.
Panetta often speaks of protecting the Defense Department from further spending cuts. A frequent topic of conversation in Washington, the subject of sequestration-level cuts has been coming up more frequently in Panetta’s discussions with troops in the United States and overseas.
“[Fiscal] uncertainty is one of the great threats to national security,” Panetta said.