The gross domestic product would be reduced by roughly half a percentage point, a blow to a struggling economy. About a million defense and nondefense jobs would be lost over two years, causing a spike in unemployment.
"An absolute fiasco," said former Sen. Pete Domenici (R., N.M.), who was chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.
Unless Obama and congressional Republicans and Democrats can agree on a plan to stave off the cuts, the military will face a reduction of $492 billion over a decade, with a $55 billion cut beginning in January, three months into the fiscal year. Domestic programs also would be reduced by $492 billion over a decade.
The automatic cuts, known as "sequestration," are the result of the failure last year of a bipartisan congressional panel to come up with a plan to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta unveiled a new military strategy this year that reflected the drawdown of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and shifted the focus to future challenges in Asia, the Mideast and in cyberspace. The strategy also was driven by pressure to reduce the nation's deficit. The budget law that Obama and congressional Republicans backed last year called for reducing projected defense spending by $487 billion over 10 years.
Retired Marine Gen. James Jones, who headed the U.S. European Command, said if the Pentagon faces automatic cuts on top of the already planned reductions, "it makes the president's strategic guidance" impossible to execute.
Domenici, former Rep. Dan Glickman (D., Kan.), Jones, and the other retired military leaders implored Congress to act now to avert the cuts and not wait until after the election..