WASHINGTON -- Automatic defense cuts looming in January would be more devastating than previously feared and make it impossible for President Barack Obama to refocus his national security strategy, a bipartisan group of former lawmakers and retired military officers said yesterday.

Members of the Bipartisan Policy Center painted a dire picture for the nation's economy, the military and large and small defense contractors if the automatic reductions occur on Jan. 2. Based on a special task force's calculations, the group said the cuts would mean an indiscriminate, across-the-board 15 percent reduction in programs and activities within the military, not the 10 percent that had been estimated.

The gross domestic product also would be reduced by roughly half a percentage point, a blow to a struggling economy. About 1 million defense and nondefense jobs would be lost over two years.

"An absolute fiasco," said former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who was chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

Unless Obama, congressional Republicans and Democrats can agree on a plan to stave off the cuts, the military will face a reduction of $492 billion over a decade, with a $55 billion cut beginning in January, three months into the fiscal year. Domestic programs also would be reduced by $492 billion over a decade.

The automatic cuts, known as "sequestration," are the result of the failure last year of a bipartisan congressional panel to come up with a plan to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years. The panel was created in the hard-fought budget law passed last summer that reduced government spending while raising the nation's borrowing authority.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta unveiled a new military strategy earlier this year that reflected the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan and shifted the focus to future challenges in Asia, the Mideast and in cyberspace. The strategy also was driven by pressure to reduce the nation's deficit. The budget law that Obama and congressional Republicans backed last year called for reducing projected defense spending by $487 billion over 10 years.

Retired Marine Gen. James Jones, who headed the U.S. European Command, said if the automatic cuts take place on top of already-planned reductions, "it makes the president's strategic guidance" impossible to execute.

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