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Defense secretary Panetta blasts defense budget cuts in visit to ship off California coast

leon panetta on ship

March 30, 2012: U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, center, salutes as he is piped aboard the USS Peleliu upon his arrival at Camp Pendleton, Calif. (AP)

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Marines and sailors on Friday that Congress would be irresponsible if it doesn't act to prevent drastic military budget cuts.

In a visit to this amphibious assault ship off the Southern California coast, he also said Afghanistan is making progress against the Taliban but Iran remains a potential threat to the U.S.

A budget agreement reached last August calls for defense cuts of $487 billion over a decade, a reflection of the drawdown of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the pressure to reduce the nation's deficit.

The failure of Congress' so-called "supercommittee" to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in savings means automatic cuts of more than $1 trillion next January to defense and domestic programs.

Congress "did a stupid thing" in risking the $50 billion in reductions that would kick in next January, Panetta told hundreds of Marines and sailors.

"What they essentially did is put a gun to their heads and the heads of the country," he said.

Answering questions from service members and journalists, Panetta also said the military had made significant gains last year in Afghanistan, where the U.S. is winding down its combat role.

Afghan forces are doing their job in the country and the U.S. strategy of handing over security to them is working, the secretary said.

"We can't let anything, anything undermine that strategy," he said. "Ultimately, it's going to be up to them to (be responsible for) securing their country."

He said the level of violence in Afghanistan dropped last year for the first time in five years and the Taliban was weakened.

Afghanistan's neighbor, Iran, continues to be a threat to U.S. interests, however.

"If Israel decides to go after Iran and we have to defend ourselves, we could be engaged sooner than any of us wants," he said.

It was not clear whether Panetta was saying the United States would automatically be engaged if Israel would attack. It also is not clear if the Obama administration has plans to be engaged with Iran.

"Our focus is on diplomacy and international pressure on Iran. I'm not going to speculate on what would happen in various scenarios other than to say that we will be ready," Carl Woog, Panetta's spokesman, said later.

"The secretary said we have plans for any contingency and we're not going to speculate about timelines or future actions," he added.

Panetta also addressed North Korea's threat to fire a missile.

"They've done this before. We thought we were in a period of accommodation. Now it looks like we're in a period of provocation," Panetta said.

"Our hope is that it is just provocation for the moment," he said.

The Pentagon says the Defense Department is committed to ships like the Peleliu that came under debate when former Defense Secretary Robert Gates questioned whether amphibious capability is becoming outdated with today's enemy anti-ship technology.