WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress on Wednesday that if automatic government spending cuts kick in on March 1, he may have to shorten the workweek for the "vast majority" of the Defense Department's 800,000 civilian workers.
They would lose one day of work per week, or 20 percent of their pay, for up to 22 weeks.
Panetta also said the across-the-board spending reductions would "put us on a path toward a hollow force," meaning a military incapable of fulfilling all of its missions.
In a written message to employees, Panetta said that he notified members of Congress Wednesday that if the White House and Congress cannot strike a deficit reduction deal before March 1 to avoid the furloughs, all affected workers will get at least 30 days' advance notice.
The furloughs would be part of a broader plan the Pentagon is preparing in order to cut $46 billion through the end of this budget year, which ends Sept. 30.
"In the event of sequestration we will do everything we can to be able to continue to perform our core mission of providing for the security of the United States, but there is no mistaking that the rigid nature of the cuts forced upon this department, and their scale, will result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force," Panetta wrote.
Adding his voice to the budget debate, Secretary of State John Kerry said the fiscal impasse is a serious threat to American credibility around the world.
"Think about it: It is hard to tell the leadership of any number of countries that they must resolve their economic issues if we don't resolve our own," Kerry said Wednesday in a speech at the University of Virginia.
Panetta was flying Wednesday to Brussels to attend a NATO defense ministers meeting. Spokesman George Little told reporters en route that Panetta would tell his counterparts that across-the-board budget cuts will hurt not only the U.S. military but also the ability of NATO to respond to crises.
Little said the Pentagon is also discussing the possibility of not being able to send military units on planned rotations to various places around the world. In anticipation of cuts, the Pentagon has already decided not to send one aircraft carrier back to the Persian Gulf, reducing the U.S. presence there to one carrier.