WASHINGTON — A top Navy admiral said Thursday that annual, automatic budget cuts would have a “debilitating effect” on military facilities such as the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard because skilled workers would seek more secure jobs elsewhere.

Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert said that, without congressional action to address the “sequestration” budget cuts, the Navy will likely struggle to recruit and retain civilian workers at shipyards and administrative offices. The cuts will also reduce the number of ships being built and delay maintenance of vessels.

Greenert made the comments Thursday at a congressional hearing in which top military commanders also warned that continued cuts would force further reductions in training and acquisitions of new ships, planes and weapons systems.

The result, they said, would be a smaller military less prepared to respond to worldwide threats.

“We are headed toward a force in not too many years that is hollow back home and not ready to deploy,” Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “And if they do deploy in harm’s way, we’ll end up with more casualties.”

The Pentagon absorbed half of the roughly $85 billion in automatic budget cuts that began in March. Congress designed the indiscriminate cuts to be so unattractive that they would force lawmakers to find another way to reduce the federal deficit. Those negotiations failed, however, and the next round of cuts will begin early next year. Cuts will continue for the following eight years unless lawmakers agree on an alternative.

The sequestration cuts are a focal point of negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers who have until next month to reach an agreement on a new budget for fiscal year 2014. While Republicans and Democrats agree that military officials deserve more flexibility to implement the budget cuts, it is unclear whether the two parties will agree on whether to replace the cuts.

“There are any number of deals, it’s just a question of whether people have the political will and the desire to make it happen,” said Sen. Angus King of Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House-Senate budget negotiating group.

In Maine, some of the most significant impacts from ongoing budget cuts would be felt by the state’s multibillion-dollar shipbuilding industry.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., read an excerpt from a letter sent by a union representative at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, which employs about 4,700 workers.

The shipyard was hit with some furloughs from sequestration – although far fewer than many federal facilities – and workers were sent home or worked without pay during last month’s government shutdown.

Paul O’Connor, president of the Portsmouth Metal Trades Council, wrote that the shipyard’s highly motivated workforce has been “reprogrammed to fear the threat/reality of furloughs.”

“With nine and a half more years of sequestration hanging over our heads – nine and a half more years of furloughs and layoffs – how will we attract the ‘best and brightest’ young men and women to our technologically sophisticated, complex, precision-based industry?” O’Connor wrote to Shaheen.

“Many of our experienced workforce have ‘had enough’ of the vitriol aimed at our national federal workforce,” O’Connor wrote. “Our experienced men and women are leaving at a more rapid pace than in the past.”

Adm. Greenert agreed with the letter.

“It very clearly states the debilitating effect of doing this year after year,” he said. “It’s inefficient and you lose productivity. … You can’t hire people, so you can’t distribute your workforce. And you furlough them here and there. So they are going to go elsewhere.”

Greenert said that in the short term, the budget cuts would force the Navy to cancel planned procurement of three submarines and ships next year. It did not appear that any of those would be built at Maine’s Bath Iron Works, a private shipyard that builds Navy ships.

The budget cuts would also cancel or defer 34 of the 55 surface ship maintenance periods next fiscal year.

The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard specializes in maintaining nuclear-powered submarines. Navy officials cited the budget cuts and higher-than-anticipated costs when they announced plans to scrap, rather than repair, the USS Miami, a submarine that was severely damaged by an arsonist last year.

Looking ahead, Greenert projected that failure to address sequestration or give the military more flexibility in making the cuts would produce a Navy consisting of 255 ships by 2020 – about 30 fewer than today and 50 fewer than the Navy predicts it will need.

Other commanders made equally stark assessments.

“I believe our challenge is much greater today than it has been during my time in the Army, in terms of readiness,” Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “This is the lowest readiness levels that I have seen within our Army since I’ve been serving the last 37 years.”

Odierno and the other commanders made similar predictions at congressional hearings months ago, yet Congress is still debating whether to replace the cuts and, if so, how.

Budget negotiations between the House and Senate are due to resume next week.

Kevin Miller can be reached at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@pressherald.com