Senior Defense officials warned Congress Tuesday that the looming sequestration cuts represents a dire and unprecedented threat to the U.S. military, harming everything from combat readiness at a time of dangerous international tensions to the Pentagon’s efforts to reduce military suicide.

“The wolf is at the door,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, appearing with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing Tuesday morning on the effect of sequestration on the Pentagon.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. (Defense Department photo)

Automatic reductions due to kick in on March 1 would force the Pentagon to cut $46 billion from its budget over the next seven months. Furloughs for the 800,000 defense civilian force to the maximum extent allowable by law would save the Pentagon $5 billion over that period. “We’d still have $41 billion to go,” said Carter.

Training and maintenance for aircraft would be among the many areas that would have to be cut, military officials said.

“I began my career in a hollow army. I don’t want to end my career in a hollow army,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno.

Odierno warned that programs aimed at combating military suicide such as providing mental health counselors on military bases may suffer. “We will not be able to afford the number of counselors we have today,” he said.

Sen. John McCain, (R-Az.), said it was “Orwellian” to be on verge of sequestration even as North Korea has been conducting nuclear testing and growing concerns about the stability of Iran, Egypt and Tunisia.

The Pentagon announced last week that the scheduled deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman has been delayed owing to budget uncertainty. “The signal we’re sending to Iranians is don’t worry, the aircraft carrier is not coming,” said McCain

“These would be the steepest, deepest cuts at a time I would attest is more dangerous than it’s ever been.”said Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Sen. Lindsay Graham, {R-S.C.), said the cuts imposed by sequestration will put military leaders in “a great moral dilemma” by sending inadequately prepared troops into battle.

Odierno said after the hearing that it is “hard to tell” how Tuesday’s testimony will affect congressional action on sequestration, as most members of the Senate panel expressed support for protecting the defense budget.

“It’s how we connect to the other congressional members who don’t deal with defense,” he said. “It’s about people understanding how serious the problem is.”