(CNN) - In the budget clash over national defense, the money is in the billions but the rhetoric soars even higher.
And the gloom-and-doom forecasts of possible military cuts seem to get more alarming by the day.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned that additional cuts would erode national security and even lead to war, encouraging America's enemies to attack.
"In effect, it invites aggression," he said at the end of last week.
"Devastating," is how he described the potential impact of forced cuts, in a letter to senators.
But one of the sharpest critics of the Pentagon, master phrase-maker, Winslow Wheeler, dismisses this as over-excited talk designed to disguise management failure.
"Panetta, (House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck") McKeon , the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been babbling the worst strains of hysteria," Wheeler told CNN. "Now they are saying it will encourage other countries to attack. It's pure babble."
Wheeler is a veteran of budget battles working for the Senate and the General Accounting Office. He now is director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information.
And he is not alone in his concern that the war of words may be obscuring a much more important debate over how the United States defends itself in a more austere time.
"At some time, cooler heads will have to prevail," says Tina Jonas, who had an inside view as Pentagon comptroller and undersecretary of Defense from 2004 to 2008.
She suggests that Panetta may be staking out his territory as a newcomer to the Pentagon. He moved over to the Pentagon this summer from the CIA.
"I think Secretary Panetta, as a new secretary, has to make sure he maintains the support of the military, for whatever tasks come ahead," Jonas told CNN. "They will test his mettle and see if he is the real deal."
Another former Pentagon insider, Dov Zakheim, who also served as undersecretary of Defense and comptroller from 2001 to 2004 says he thinks Panetta is doing the only thing he can - vigorously oppose the automatic cuts.
"His strategy has to be to avoid the sequestration at all costs," Zakheim said Monday, referring to automatic budget cuts. "It would go to programs, projects and activities, all the way down into the weeds."
But at the same time Zakheim says he thinks the Pentagon might actually come out ahead if sequestration goes into force and then provides a new breathing space, instead of having Congress dream up and approve cuts now.
"I've argued publicly and privately that I don't think sequestration would be a bad thing," Zakheim said. Those automatic cuts won't take effect for another 11 months or so, in the 2013 budget. Zakheim says allowing a new review of defense priorities, instead of cuts that Congress might approved right now as part of a comprehensive "super committee" deal, would allow a fresh view.
"The odds of defense getting massacred are pretty slight."
Panetta has warned that without a budget compromise and with the automatic trigger of an additional $600 billion in cuts, the impact will spread throughout the Pentagon, to the war fighters in Afghainstan, to civilian workers at defense companies across the country.
He obviously was feeling impatient when he spoke to shipyard workers in Connecticut last week. "You know, I really urge the leaders in the Congress, I urge this committee: Suck it up, do what's right for the country," Panetta said to the people who build American submarines.
"You know, I think the country wants these people to govern. That's why we elect people, is to govern, not to just survive in office. We elect them to govern. That involves risks, that involves tough choices, but that's what democracy is all about."
Panetta said in an addendum to his letter to senators Monday the cuts would "generate significant operational risks: delays response time to crises, conflicts, and disasters; severely limits our ability to be forward deployed and engaged around the world; and assumes unacceptable risk in future combat operations."
At the conservative think thank, the Heritage Foundation, Mackenzie Eaglen said that the present polarized debate over defense spending obscures important issues.
"It is a nuanced challenge," she says. "Reductions already have taken place."
The Defense Department right now is digesting more than $450 billion in cuts. Eaglen agrees with the warnings from Panetta and the service chiefs that reductions will mean a hollow force. She warns that high-end weapons systems may suffer the most, with jets, ships and vehicles nearing the end of their design life and needing replacement.
She points to big cancellations already under the Obama administration for a new helicopter, a fifth-generation F-22 for the Air Force and a longp-range bomber. In addition, other projects have been pushed into the future - for instance, a new aircraft carrier is now five years out instead of four.
"There are two budgets, because the Defense Department has a war budget and then basically a garrison, peace-time budget as well," Eaglen says. The war budget is off limits in the present budget debate and the main defense budget has been battered by a series of Congressional missteps in recent years, coming to the brink of government shutdowns, banning increases with continuing resolution that played havoc with planning and spending."
"If I have to cut another $500, $600 billion out of defense, it decimates defense," Panetta told civilians sub-builders in Connecticut. "It's going to totally hollow out the force."
But even the top military man at the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, questions the usefulness of the hollowed-out imagery. "I'm not a huge fan of that phrase," Dempsey said at a conference of Military Reporters and Editors about how the military brass can cope with cuts.
About the automatic cuts, he says it is not just the magnitude but the mechanism that troubles him.
"If it takes and it applies another $600 billion of cuts across the board, you can't fence or protect any particular account," Dempsey told the journalists. If the automatic cuts are allowed to stand they would be across the board, with everything getting the same 20% whack. And he portrays the military brass and dialing in various responses to different budget scenarios. He says the military can cope as long as the service chiefs have the ability to make adjustments in three areas - manpower, modernization and equipment and finally, operations, maintenance and training.
"As long as the service chiefs, and we, retain the ability to affect each of those rheostats, if one of them is not taken away from us, as long as we can affect all three and have time," Dempsey said last week.
"You tell me to do in three years, then I have to spin the dial and then we are off to the races. You tell me we have five years, then we can manage it."
But some Pentagon analysts say heavy cuts are the best outcome for the federal budget and the military itself. Wheeler says the Pentagon budget, even under the worst-case scenario of the automatic cuts under sequestration, would take the Defense Department back to the level of spending in 2007.
"Nobody was screaming doomsday back then," Wheeler says. "The 2007 budget was a peak and not a valley."
Wheeler says that since 9/11 the U.S. has spent $1.3 trillion on wars while at the same time increasing the base defense budget by more than $1 trillion. "Management of those funds by the Pentagon, the White House and Congress has been abysmal," Wheeler says. "With the increase in money we got a force that is smaller and older."
Wheeler rejects the Pentagon suggestion that less money means a hollow force. The ideal result would be a smaller force with newer weapons and infrastructure and, most importantly, a better way of spending its money. "The way they squandered the money, they have hollowed out the force with more money. It will take a new management ethic and a whole new team of managers."
About possible exaggeration and overblown rhetoric, Panetta spokesmen push back. "We're absolutely not overstating the - the devastating consequences of sequestration," Pentagon spokesman George Little says. Earlier Little, reaching for descriptive phrases had painted sequestration as a meat-axe attached to a chain saw.
And Zakheim worries that cuts could reduce the Navy at a time when the United States may want to have a more visible rote in the Pacific and elsewhere. "You are not really solving the problem, you're aggravating it," Zakheim says, if the U.S. creates a power vacuum on the high seas and allows China to fill it. "Would it be war? No," Zakheim says. "Disaster? It depends."
Wheeler is disappointed that Panetta, heralded as the right man when he arrived at the Pentagon to help navigate rough budget seas, has failed to deliver.
"Panetta is a gross political hack." He says.
And the only glimmer of hope is that a budget squeeze will be a shock to the system.
"Less money is always good shock therapy for over-stuffed bureaucrats," Wheeler says.