Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) began the questioning of Chuck Hagel at his nomination hearing on Thursday with a question on the impending threat of nearly $43 billion in budget cuts at the Pentagon.

Hagel said such cuts would be disastrous, would reduce air time for training pilots, lead to furloughs for civilian Defense Department employees and seize budget authority "away from those responsible for manning our budget."

"Those that have the responsibility of manning the department ... are preparing for the worst," Hagel said. "But make no mistake: This is not an exaggeration. And when managers are not given the flexibility and the opportunity and the tools to manage with complete uncertainty as to what’s ahead, that’s disaster."

The looming cuts, known as the sequester, are a product of the 2011 fight over the national debt, when the new GOP House majority insisted on spending cuts equal in size to the increase in the federal debt limit. The result: spending caps that would force President Obama to slice $1 trillion from agency budgets over the next decade, along with $1.2 trillion in additional cuts that would hit automatically on Jan. 2, 2013, unless Congress agreed on a plan to replace them.