Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used a hearing Thursday on Benghazi to sound a dire warning about looming military cuts, saying the cuts now three weeks away represent “one of the greatest security risks we are now facing.”

The outgoing Defense secretary made his latest high-profile effort to plead with Congress to avert the cuts during what may be his final testimony on Capitol Hill. Panetta was testifying on the Libya terror attack before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

At the end of his opening statement, he directly appealed to lawmakers to do “whatever you can” to avoid another threat to the nation’s security — the budget squeeze.

“This budget uncertainty could prompt the most significant … military readiness crisis in more than a decade,” Panetta said.

The warning comes a day after the Pentagon announced it would shrink its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf from two to one due to looming budget constraints. The department, though, is making a range of other prospective cutbacks — from civilian furloughs to hiring freezes to smaller military pay increases. Some of those measures are reversible, Panetta said, but time is running out.

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