WASHINGTON — The United States military can handle targeted defense cuts, but if a “doomsday mechanism” of automatic cuts kicks in, national security will falter and downrange troops will suffer, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.

Panetta, in his first Pentagon press conference, along with Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, continued the Defense Department’s full-court press to head off drastic defense cuts that could slash nearly $1 trillion over the next 10 years.

President Barack Obama said in April the Pentagon should prepare to cut $400 billion over 12 years, an amount similar to the $350 billion in 10 years that came out of the debt ceiling deal announced Monday.

Such cuts, wisely implemented, can be managed, Panetta said.

“We have the opportunity to make those decisions based on sound and balanced strategy and policy, and with the best advice that we can get from our service chiefs and from the service secretaries,” he said.

But if a soon-to-be appointed congressional panel fails to find a way to trim $1.2 trillion from government expenditures over the next 10 years, as required by the debt ceiling legislation, about half of that amount would automatically be carved out of the DOD’s budget.

Panetta called the prospect of automatic cuts a “doomsday mechanism” to force Congress to work together to reduce the deficit.

“If it did happen, it would result in a further round of very dangerous cuts across the board — defense cuts that would do further damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our military’s ability to protect the nation,” he said. “It is an outcome that would be completely unacceptable to me as secretary of defense. ... Most importantly it would be unacceptable to the American people.”

While the DOD should bear part of the deficit-reduction burden, tax increases and entitlement cuts must be part of the equation too, Panetta said.

Mullen said his recent trip to Afghanistan and Iraq revealed that downrange troops are worried by the budget fights.

“Our men and women downrange have enough to worry about just getting the job done,” he said. “They shouldn’t also be concerned about whether or not they will be paid to do that job, or whether or not their families will continue to get the support they need during long absences.”

Panetta said he considers the welfare of the troops his No. 1 responsibility.

“Every decision I make will be made with them in mind,” he said. “They put their lives on the line. Too many have made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of this country. We owe it to them to do this right and to do this responsibly.”

Twitter: ChrisCarroll_

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