Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Thursday that sweeping military cuts which could be triggered by the failure of the congressional deficit committee to strike a deal "invites aggression" from abroad.
The comments from Panetta were among the toughest to date about the consequences of failure by the so-called Super Committee tasked with reducing the deficit. The committee is facing a Nov. 23 deadline to produce a plan that cuts at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade, but is far from a deal. Absent a compromise, the legislation that created the panel would "trigger" sweeping cuts to defense and entitlements.
Panetta on Thursday urged the committee to "sacrifice just a little," to avoid painful cuts to the military -- which would just about double the $450 billion in cutbacks the department is already looking to carry out over the next decade.
He said the military would be a hollow shell of its former self, lacking "the people, the training, and the equipment it needs to actually get the job done."
"I've warned that by cutting in excess of 20 percent in every area, (the trigger) will lead to a hollow force. And let me explain just exactly what we're talking about when we talk about hollow force. Obviously, that which is hollow retains a shell but lacks a core," he said.
"It's a ship without sailors. It's a brigade without bullets. It's an air wing without enough trained pilots. It's a paper tiger. An Army of barracks, buildings and bombs without enough trained soldiers able to accomplish the mission. It's a force that suffers low morale, poor readiness, and is unable to keep up with potential adversaries. In effect, it invites aggression," Panetta said.
The secretary said such an outcome would be the result of "poor leadership."
Meanwhile, lawmakers on the committee and party leaders are trying to work out their differences, but are far from a deal.
Republicans had offered a $1.5 trillion package that included, for the first time, new tax revenue to the tune of about $300 billion, but Democrats are rejecting the offer -- saying the revenue component is not substantial enough.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said earlier this week he's "hopeful" a deal can be reached by Nov. 23.
In reality, that deadline will hit even sooner. The budget crunchers at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office must get a complete product soon, in order to have time to analyze and score a bill for floor consideration. Super Committee aides say CBO must then publish that score by Nov. 21.
Fox News' Justin Fishel and Trish Turner contributed to this report.