Final Countdown to Sequestration

New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during a news conference regarding the automatic spending cuts, Friday, March 1, 2013.

Congress and the White House have until midnight Friday to agree to a deficit reduction plan to replace sequestration or the $500 billion in budget cuts to the military over the next ten years will go into effect.

President Obama met with Congressional leaders in the White House Friday morning in a last ditch effort to avoid sequestration but afterwards both sides of the discussions announced that little progress was made during the meeting.

New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday of the grave risks to national security under the massive and automatic budget cuts from the sequester process. He said "we will be forced to assume more risks" in the nation’s defense.

Sequestration is part of the Budget Control Act that mandates $1.2 trillion in cuts across federal agencies to include the $500 million to the military. The deadline to avert sequestration is Friday, but the cuts don’t start going into effect until March 27.

Even after the cuts start going into place on March 27, Congress could reach an agreement and pen legislation that reduces or eliminates future cuts. This will make budgeting in future years difficult, Pentagon leaders have said.

The worst part of sequester for military planners is the "uncertainty" around when and if the process will end, Hagel said. "This uncertainty puts at risk our ability to effectively fulfill all of our missions."

Most of the military’s civilian work force will be the first to feel the effects of sequester. Pentagon leaders have ordered a 22-day furlough for Defense Department civilians that will start in April. These workers will have to take unpaid day off per week from April to October 1 in order to save the Pentagon $5 billion.

In the near term, Pentagon officials will have seven months to cut $46 billion from the budget. The services will have to absorb a 9 percent cut across each one of their programs except for pay

In his first Pentagon press conference since taking office Wednesday, said he expected Congress to reach a compromise to limit the fallout from sequester. He said he was confident that "a consensus can be reached at some point to avert tremendous damage to this institution."

However, these were the same lines shared by Congress and military leaders in 2012. Now, facing the deadline, sequester seems inevitable, House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.

Despite his confidence, Hagel said the Navy will be forced to stand down at least four air wings beginning in April, the Air Force will immediately cut flying hours for pilots, and the Army will curtail training for all units not preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.

"We anticipate these realities" coming from the sequester cuts, Hagel said, "and we will do what we need to do."

To avoid the cutbacks, "we need a balanced deficit reduction plan that leads to an end of sequester," Hagel said. "That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this."

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who followed Hagel to the podium, said the Defense Department will seek to soften the impact of the cuts but cautioned that the effects of sequester "will be unmistakable. It is not subtle."

For the Air Force, the Defense Department will protect pilots flying in Afghanistan and those involved in the nuclear deterrent from cuts in flying hours, but all others will have time in the air curtailed, Carter said.

For the Army, training for units going to Afghanistan will be maintained, Carter said, but training for the rest of the force will be cut and "the readiness of other units to respond to contingencies will decline, Carter said.

For the Navy, ships’ maintenance will be deferred, Carter said, and "once you’ve created that maintenance gap, that gap propagates through the future."

"We’re doing everything we can to minimize the lasting damage," Carter said but "we have to find $46 billion between now and the end of the year" in the way of defense cuts under the sequester mandates, and the impact will be felt across the uniformed and civilian workforce.

President Obama appeared resigned to an indefinite sequester but held out the possibility for reaching a deal later this month. "We can get through this," Obama said later in the White House press room, but "it’s just dumb" and "it’s going to hurt."

The Republicans have said they won’t compromise if the deficit-reduction deal includes a tax revenue increase, and the Democrats won’t compromise without it.

Even before the meeting, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, said "there will be no last-minute, back-room deal and absolutely no agreement to increase taxes."

Hagel spoke at the Pentagon after meeting earlier with the service chiefs in the "tank" – the secure basement situation room – to hear the specifics of their proposals for dealing with the impending cuts.

Military leaders beginning with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint chiefs of Staff, have warned that the sequester cuts will devastate operations and maintenance, and put readiness at risk, but civilian analysts of the defense budget have cautioned against doomsday predictions.

The more ominous date for spending cuts comes on March 27 when the current continuing resolution for Congressional spending expires, bringing the threat of a government shutdown, said Gordon Adams, a professor at the School of International Service of American University and a former defense budget specialist at the White House from 1993-97.

Defense drawdowns are cyclical, Adams said, and the current push to downsize the military and cut spending fits the pattern.

"It is eminently manageable and it’s happened before," Adams said on a conference call with reporters.

Adams noted that fears of a "hollow force" were rampant in the protracted defense drawdown after Vietnam and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but "effectively that was the same force that used Saddam Hussein as a speed bump in 2003" in the drive to Baghdad during the Iraq invasion.

Under former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the Pentagon adopted a strategy last spring to avoid the sequester cuts by warning Congress in general of the dire consequences to national security while shying away from planning for the specifics of what the loss of more than $500 billion in funding over 10 years would entail.

The Pentagon already had $487 billion in cuts over 10 years underway, Panetta said. The Army is in the process of downsizing from 570,000 to 480,000, while the Marine Corps is reducing its ranks from 202,000 to about 180,000, Panetta said.

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