The US military is not a 911 service ready to rush to every emergency around the world, Pentagon chief Leon Panetta told lawmakers Thursday, defending the response to an attack on a mission in Libya.
He also urged a Senate committee to help remove the threat of deep automatic budget cuts set to hit the Defense Department from March 1, calling them one of the greatest risks to America's national security.
The defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, were grilled by senators probing what happened during the deadly September 11 militant attack on the US mission in Benghazi.
"I firmly believe that the Department of Defense and the US armed forces did all we could do in the response to the attacks in Benghazi," Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Despite having US bases in the Africa region and in Italy, Panetta said there was not enough time to scramble resources to Benghazi as the mission and a nearby annex came under fire.
An unmanned surveillance drone did arrive on the scene an hour and 11 minutes after the start of the attack, but it would have taken a fixed-wing aircraft between nine to 12 hours to get there.
"The United States military, as I've said, is not and frankly should not be a 911 service capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world," Panetta said.
"The US military has neither the resources nor the responsibility to have a firehouse next to every US facility in the world."
Panetta also stressed there had been "no specific intelligence" of an attack on the mission in Benghazi, in which the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans were killed.
"Frankly, without an adequate warning, there was not enough time, given the speed of the attack, for armed military assets to respond," Panetta said.
However, he assured lawmakers that the Defense Department, working with the State Department, was putting in place new measures in the wake of the attack, including plans to base 1,000 more Marines at US missions around the world.
But he warned of the threat to the Pentagon if lawmakers fail to reach a deal with President Barack Obama to avert automatic budget cuts on March 1, which would slash the defense budget by $46 billion.
The threat of what is called sequestration is "one of the greatest security risks we are now facing as a nation," Panetta said.
"This budget uncertainty could prompt the most significant military readiness crisis in more than a decade," he warned.