US defence cuts 'irresponsible'
US defence secretary Leon Panetta has told US marines and sailors that Congress would be irresponsible if it did not act to prevent drastic military budget cuts.
In a visit to the USS Peleliu, an 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 US
A budget agreement reached last August calls for defence cuts of 487 billion dollars (£304 billion) over a decade, a reflection of the draw-down of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the pressure to reduce the nation's deficit.
The failure of Congress to come up with at least 1.2 trillion dollars (£750 billion) in savings means automatic cuts of more than one trillion dollars (£625 billion) next January to defence and domestic programmes.
Congress "did a stupid thing" in risking the 50 billion dollars (£31.2 billion) in across-the-board reductions that would kick in next January, Mr Panetta told hundreds of marines and sailors. "What they essentially did was to put a gun to their heads and to the heads of the country," he said.
Answering questions from service members and journalists, Mr Panetta also said last year was a turning point for the war in Afghanistan, where the US is winding down its combat role.
Afghan forces are doing their job in the country and more than 50% of the Afghan population is now living in areas secured by the Afghan government - showing the US strategy of handing over the security to them is working - but ultimately it will be up to Afghans, Mr Panetta said. "We can't let anything, anything undermine that strategy," he added.
He said the level of violence in Afghanistan dropped last year for the first time in five years, while the Taliban was weakened.
Afghanistan's neighbour, Iran, continues to be a threat to US interests, he said. "If Israel decides to go after Iran and we have to defend ourselves, we could be engaged sooner than any of us want," he said.
It was not clear whether Mr 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, Mr 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.