“The wolf is at the door,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warned during testimony before the Senate Armed Service committee. Officials, from left, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Defense Undersecretary Robert Hale, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Amos and National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Frank Grass prepare for testimony to resume. (Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

Senior Defense Department officials warned Congress on Tuesday that the looming sequestration cuts represent a dire and unpre­cedented threat to the U.S. military, with the potential to harm 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 morning hearing.

Automatic reductions set to kick in March 1 would force the Pentagon to cut $46 billion from its budget over the next seven months.

The automatic cuts, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned, could leave U.S. military ­forces “degraded and unready,” adding during questioning that “it would be immoral to use the force unless it’s well-trained, well-led and well-equipped.”

“Are we on the path to creating that dilemma?” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) asked.

“We are on that path,” Dempsey replied.

“I began my career in a hollow army,” Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Army chief of staff, told the panel, referring to the gutted condition of the Army after post-Vietnam War defense cuts. “I don’t want to end my career in a hollow army.”

Odierno warned that programs aimed at combating the rising levels of suicide in the military, including 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-Ariz.) said it was “Orwellian” to be on the verge of sequestration even as North Korea conducts nuclear tests and as concerns grow about the stability of Iran and Egypt.

The Pentagon announced last week that the scheduled deployment of the USS Harry S. Truman has been delayed because of budget uncertainty.

“The signal we’re sending to Iranians is: Don’t worry. The aircraft carrier is not coming,” McCain said.

Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, estimated that by the end of the year, more than half of the service’s combat units will be below minimal acceptable levels of readiness for deployment to combat.

The Pentagon, which has long warned against the sequester threat, has said its civilian workforce will face furloughs. Even if all 800,000 defense civilian workers are put on furlough for the maximum extent allowable by law, the Pentagon would save only $5 billion over that period, Carter said. “We’d still have $41 billion to go,” he said.

Carter noted that a furlough of one day per week for the rest of the fiscal year would amount to a 20 percent pay cut. He added that though he is not subject to furlough as a Senate-approved appointee, he would return one-fifth of his pay if the defense civilian force is furloughed.

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

Dempsey was asked by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) to rate the danger sequestration poses to national defense on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the most serious

“From where I sit today, it sure feels like a 10,” Dempsey said. “These would be the steepest, deepest cuts at a time I would attest is more dangerous than it’s ever been.”

The military panel met with a sympathetic audience Tuesday, as most members of the Senate panel expressed support for ­protecting the defense budget from automatic, across-the-board cuts.

Odierno said after the hearing that it is “hard to tell” how Tuesday’s testimony will affect congressional action on sequestration.

“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.”