OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. — The United States must remain diligent in protecting itself from terror threats, including possible cyber attacks, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Friday at a military base near Omaha.

"We could face a cyber attack that could be the equivalent of Pearl Harbor," he said to about 100 military personnel stationed at Offutt Air Force Base.

Such an attack, Panetta said, could "take down our power grid system, take down our financial systems in this country, take down our government systems, take down our banking systems."

"They could virtually paralyze this country," he said. "We have to be prepared to deal with that."

Panetta followed the warning by reiterating one he issued a day earlier: Cutting too deeply into America's defense budget could damage the country's security.

His remarks came in the wake of the compromise debt deal struck in Washington earlier this week that will slice $350 billion from projected military spending over the next 10 years. Panetta, who was White House budget chief in the Clinton administration, said he has no qualms about those cuts, noting the Pentagon has to "do its part" in helping meet deficit reductions.

But the defense secretary does have a problem with the potential for up to $500 billion more in defense cuts.

As part of the debt deal, a 12-member, House-Senate committee must propose up to $1.5 trillion more in cuts over a decade and do so by Nov. 23. If the committee deadlocks or if Congress rejects its recommendations, the Obama administration would be required to impose automatic, across-the-board spending cuts of up to $1.2 trillion, with half coming from defense.

"The last thing we need to do is to hollow out our force," Panetta told the military gathering in Nebraska. "The last thing we need to do is weaken the United States of America at a very important time in our history. Listen, people are questioning the political leadership. People are questioning the economic situation. The last thing people should question is the ability of the United States to defend itself."

Those attending Panetta's address Friday were part of U.S. Strategic Command, the 55th Wing and the Air Force Weather Agency.

It was Panetta's first visit to the Air Force base. He was sworn in as defense secretary on July 1.

2 comments on this story

Nebraska's U.S. Sens. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, and Mike Johanns, a Republican, also attended the defense secretary's address, as did GOP Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska.

Nelson, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, introduced Panetta and told those attending that the defense secretary had assured him that plans for a new U.S. Strategic Command headquarters at Offutt have not changed.

"While bringing down the debt remains priority No. 1, we won't shortchange essential projects, such as replacement of the aging and outdated StratCom headquarters," Nelson said.