The Pentagon's number two official said he will cut his pay in solidarity with the tens of thousands of civilian employees who could face temporary layoffs under looming mandatory budget cuts.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that the civilian employees could face a cut of one-fifth to their paychecks for this year if the federal budget cuts are enacted in two weeks as scheduled.
"That's a real human impact, and I have said, I can't be furloughed under the law because I am a presidential appointee, but I am going to give back a fifth of my salary in the last seven months of the year if other people in the department are getting sequestered," Carter told the panel.
For the Pentagon, sequestration would mean almost $500 billion in cuts over 10 years. For 2013 alone, some $46 billion in reduced spending would result in "a serious disruption in defense programs and a sharp decline in our military readiness," outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week.
The Senate hearing included questioning of the military heads of the services who all had warned the panel of the dire consequences to the readiness of their forces.
In one of the more straightforward and rapid-fire line of questioning during the hearing, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina asked the Air Force and Navy service chiefs if the cuts would reduce the number of ships and planes in the services.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark Ferguson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh acknowledged there would be a significant reduction in the number of ships and planes in service.
Would that "make it more difficult to go into a situation like an attack on Iran and to prevent their nuclear program in the future?" Graham asked quickly.
"Yes, sir, our kick-in-the-door capability would be impacted," Welsh responded.
A potential attack on Iran would be, it is believed, carried out in large part by Air Force jets.
Sen. John McCain warned that the cuts were sending the wrong message to Iran.
"The signal we are sending, frankly, to the Iranians is, 'Don't worry, this aircraft carrier is not coming.' This is really a disconnect the likes of which I have never seen before," the Arizona Republican said.
Moments later, in a more light-hearted back and forth, Graham asked the witnesses if any of them had considered quitting in protest over the looming budget cuts. After a few moments of silence, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey spoke up.
"You have asked me that, senator, and I think you are trying to send me a message."
Dempsey said the armed services do not run away from a fight, but warned the Senate about using a military that had been gutted by the spending cuts.
"I will tell you, if ever the force is so degraded and so un-ready and then we're asked to use it, it would be immoral to use the force unless it's well-trained, well-led and well-equipped."
When Graham asked if the United States was headed in that direction, Dempsey replied, "We are on that path."
The military leaders echoed to the Senate panel Tuesday points that Panetta made in a speech last week, warning of what the Pentagon could be facing if the cuts take effect.
"There are no good options" to deal with the situation, the defense secretary said then.
As many as 46,000 department jobs would be at risk, Panetta said, and more damaging measures in coming months could include:
-- Furloughing as many as 800,000 civilian workers for up to 22 days;
-- Cutting back on Army training and maintenance, which would reduce readiness of combat brigades outside Afghanistan;
-- Shrinking naval operations; and,
-- Reducing Air Force flying hours and weapons systems maintenance.
"This is not a game. This is reality," Panetta said. "These steps would seriously damage a fragile American economy and they would degrade our ability to respond to crisis precisely at a time of rising instability across the globe."