By David Alexander
WASHINGTON, Sept 4 (Reuters) - Former top U.S. defense officials sounded an alarm over falling Pentagon spending on Thursday, warning that budget cuts had undermined military preparedness for future conflicts and were jeopardizing the U.S. leadership position in the world.
The officials, members of a panel created by Congress to evaluate the Pentagon's long-term defense plans, warned that the administration and lawmakers made a serious strategic misstep in 2011 when they ordered $1 trillion in cuts to defense spending over a decade.
"It is now becoming a national security issue," said Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy. "It affects how we are viewed in the world, it affects the options the president has at his disposal to exercise American leadership."
The warning came just days before Congress returns from its August recess. Lawmakers will be under pressure to reach a deal to fund the government, including the Defense Department, in the 2015 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
Defense officials and analysts said cuts to defense spending since 2011 mean the Pentagon no longer has the resources to fully implement President Barack Obama's defense strategy, which called for a rebalance of U.S. forces to the Asia-Pacific.
Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think-tank, estimated in a report on Thursday that the Pentagon needed $200 billion to $300 billion more than Congress has approved over the next five years to implement the strategy.
The Pentagon is seeking a $496 billion base budget in 2015, plus $58.6 billion for war funding. The figures represent a 12 percent drop from the peak base budget in 2010, and a 21 percent drop when the war funding is included, Harrison said.
He said the Pentagon's longer-range budget forecast did not fund the Army and Marine Corps at the force levels called for in the 2012 strategy, and did not have as many Navy aircraft carriers as planned.
"The department appears to be caught between ... two approaches," he said. "It has not budgeted enough to fully resource the strategy, nor has it revised its strategy to fit within the budget constraints set by Congress."
Flournoy and retired Lieutenant General Michael Maples, members of the congressionally mandated 10-person National Defense Panel, reached similar conclusions in their analysis of the Pentagon's 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, a document that examines the military's strategy in view of its resources.
Flournoy said the panel concluded "there is something very seriously wrong here and we need to sound an alarm."
"We are currently facing one of the most complex and volatile periods in our history," she said during an event at the U.S. Institute for Peace. "Does it make sense to be living under sequestration (automatic budget cuts)?"
"We see the U.S. military as an indispensable instrument of national power that underwrites our economic prosperity, keeping trade routes open, freedom of navigation," she added. "It is critical to deterring potential adversaries, reassuring allies and partners." (Reporting by David Alexander; editing by Gunna Dickson)