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Panetta Goes Nuclear on Budget Talks

The Pentagon says it will have to eliminate major military programs including ground-based nuclear missiles and the next generation of fighter jets if Congress makes further military cuts.

In a letter to Sen. John McCain written on November 14, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta compiled a list of crucial military programs that would be on the chopping block should the congressional Super Committee tasked with finding government-wide savings fail to reach an agreement, triggering an automatic cutting process known as "sequestration."

The sequestration process would cut as much as $600 billion from the Defense Department over 10 years. That figure would be added to $450 billion in cuts that have already been made, totaling more than $1 trillion.

"Facing such large reductions, we would have to reduce the size of the military sharply," Panetta wrote. "Rough estimates suggest after 10 years of these cuts, we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history."

Missing from that Air Force would be the highly touted F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon's next generation stealth jet. Billions of dollars have already been invested in the program, which has a separately designed model for each military service and for sales to allies overseas. Terminating the program altogether would save the Defense Department $80 billion.

Manufacturer Lockheed Martin has plans to build nearly 6,000 F-35 jets over the next 30 years. According to Lockheed's website the F-35 production line "is responsible for 127,000 direct and indirect private sector jobs and 3,000 additional civil service positions, making it the single largest job generator in the Department of Defense program budget."

Panetta is counting on that being too big a pill for Congress to swallow.

Panetta's letter also threatens to cut a major leg of what's known as the "nuclear triad." Nukes can be delivered from air, sea, or ground, and Panetta says the Pentagon will have to do away with its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. According to the Defense Department budget office, that would save $8 billion. The letter also says $2 billion would be saved from cutting the highly controversial European missile defense program, designed mostly for the purpose of protecting against threats from Iran.

With just one week left for Congress to make a decision, Panetta has been beating the budget drum harder and harder. Last week he told reporters these cuts would turn the military into a "hollow shell" of its former self, lacking "the people, the training, and the equipment it needs to actually get the job done."

He also said any cuts beyond the $450 billion already required over 10 years would "in effect ... invite aggression" from adversaries.

Cick here to read the full letter from the defense secretary