U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta implored Congress on Tuesday to avoid the approaching first installment of some $500 billion in defense cutbacks, saying the reductions would hollow out America's military.

Panetta said the government would be forced to start laying off workers, both military employees and civilian contractors, before the November election to accommodate the budget reduction. That could be perilous for President Barack Obama, whose re-election prospects have dimmed with the release of poorer-than-expected job numbers.

U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a more dire warning, suggesting that paring back troop and equipment levels could draw the United States into more conflict.

We would go from being unquestionably powerful everywhere to being less visible globally and presenting less of an overmatch to our adversaries, and that would translate into a different deterrent calculus and potentially, therefore, increase the likelihood of conflict, Dempsey said.

Given the potential fallout, Panetta asked lawmakers to find a way to stave off the cutbacks.

Obviously this is a great concern, Panetta said. I would urge both sides to work together to try and find a comprehensive solution.

U.S. Budget Agreement: Easier Said Than Done In Partisan Washington

But reaching such an agreement is easier said than done. Partisan rancor led directly to the current situation after Democrats and Republicans were unable to agree on a deficit reduction plan during last summer's bruising debate over raising the debt ceiling. Congress delegated responsibility for slimming the deficit to a 12-member super committee.

The super committee was constructed so that the risk of failure was high: if lawmakers could not agree on a way to reduce the deficit, that would trigger $1.2 trillion in cuts to defense and domestic spending over the next decade. But the risk of massive cutbacks was not enough to prod lawmakers into striking a deal, and now the Pentagon is facing an additional $500 billion in cuts on top of the $492 billion reduction Obama and the military had already agreed on.

It was designed as a meat ax, Panetta said of the super committee. It was designed to be a disaster. Because the hope was, because it's such a disaster, that Congress would respond and do what was right. And so I'm just here to tell you, yes, it would be a disaster.

Congressional Republicans have pushed legislation that would avert the defense cuts by slashing federal spending elsewhere, but the White House has so far stood firm. While some Democrats have recoiled at the prospect of massive Pentagon cutbacks, party leaders have sought to use the cuts as leverage in persuading Republicans to sign on to measures like increased tax revenue.

Driving the dispute is the prospect of Taxmageddon, a year-end confluence of massive budget shifts that threatens to disrupt the economy and potentially plunge the country into another recession. In addition to the first set of Pentagon and domestic spending cuts mandated by the super committee's collapse, the Bush tax cuts are set to expire; payroll taxes will rise as a separate payroll tax cut ends; and millions of Americans will reach the end of their unemployment benefits.

While leaving all of those scheduled fiscal events in place would drastically reduce the deficit, the Congressional Budget Office has warned that the economy would contract as a result. The threat of an economic catastrophe is bringing both parties to the bargaining table, but has yet to produce any concrete agreement.