Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered the military services to take steps to prepare the Defense Department for sequestration cuts that would force the military to cut $52 billion out of its fiscal 2013 budget in six months.
Defense Department leaders authorized such measures as civilian hiring freezes, contract award delays, and furloughs of up to 30 calendar days. Panetta said the Pentagon will have little time if Congress waits until March 1, the new deadline set on Capitol Hill to determine sequestration cuts.
Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued their sternest warnings yet Thursday, telling Congress the U.S. military will be unprepared in one year to protect the country if the Defense Department sustains the sweeping potential budget cuts.
“We'll be unable to reset the force following a decade of war,” Dempsey said. “Our readiness will begin to erode. Within months, we'll be less prepared. Within a year, we'll be unprepared.”
Panetta outlined how the convergence of three deadlines in March threatens to “hollow out” the military. He explained that the March 1 deadline to determine sequestration cuts, the expiration of the Continuing Resolution that’s funds the Defense Department, and the debt ceiling debate will work in confluence. Panetta called it a “perfect storm of budget uncertainty.”
“We have no idea what the hell's going to happen. All told, this uncertainty, if left unresolved by the Congress, will seriously harm our military readiness,” Panetta said.
Congressional members, who had said last year they didn’t expect sequestration cuts to occur, have changed their minds. Sequester cuts would chop $500 billion from planned defense spending over the next decade, to include $18 billion from military operations and maintenance costs in fiscal 2013.
Panetta laid out $52 billion worth of cuts the Defense Department would sustain in the six months remaining in fiscal 2013. If Congress fails to pass the 2013 budget, the Continuing Resolution that funded the Defense Department would extend through 2013 and cut $11 billion from the Pentagon’s budget.
The previous deadline to reach an agreement to avoid the sequestration trigger had been Jan. 2. Congress chose to push the deadline back to March 1 just minutes before the deadline.
Pushing the deadline back may have made sequestration cuts for the defense department more likely, said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Panetta and Dempsey signaled their uncertainty and concern the sequestration cuts would be enacted by authorizing measures to stem the damages the cuts could cause. The Pentagon leaders had previously said they didn’t count on planning for the cuts because they felt they were so unlikely. Their opinion has changed.
“I've directed components to develop more detailed plans for how they would implement sequestration if it's required, because there will be so little time to respond in the current fiscal year,” Panetta said. “I mean, we're almost halfway through the fiscal year.”
One of those precautions is a furlough for civilian employees that could extend up to 30 calendar days, Panetta said. In a Defense Department memorandum issued Thursday, the furlough would extend no more than “22 discontinuous workdays.”
Panetta emphasized that the furloughs are not approved. He has only told managers to put plans in place should they be needed.
“I want to make that clear: It's precautionary. But I have an obligation to -- to let Congress know that we may have to do that, and I very much hope that we will not have to furlough anyone. But we've got to be prepared to do that if we face this situation,” Panetta said.
Other measures taken to absorb the cuts include halting maintenance on equipment taxed by the past decade of war. Training evolutions for units not in line to deploy to Afghanistan would also have to be scrapped should the cuts be put in place, Dempsey explained.
Dempsey said the troops and missions deployed to Afghanistan will be protected, as well as wounded warriors and families.
“But for the rest of the force, operations, maintenance and training will be gutted. We'll ground aircraft, return ships to port, and sharply curtail training across the force,” the Army four-star explained. “We're on the brink of creating a hollow force, the very thing we said we must avoid.”
Panetta said he was disappointed in Congress’ inability to work together and come to an agreement to avoid the “self-inflicted” cuts outlined in sequestration. However, the former congressman is slated to leave his Pentagon post and retire to his California home.
“I'm committed to do whatever I can in the time I have remaining to try to work with the Congress to do what is necessary to resolve these issues,” Panetta said. “We have a vital mission to perform; one that the American people expect and that they are entitled to, which is to protect their safety and to protect our national security. Congress must be a partner in that mission. I'd love to be able to do this alone, but I can't.”