The Defense Department will send recommendations to Congress this year for how and where it could absorb potential budget reductions, DoD's incoming deputy secretary said Tuesday.
Ash Carter, moving up from his job as the Pentagon's top weapons-buyer, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the department would make recommendations that lawmakers could pass along to the joint "super-committee" for possible budget cuts, but it wasn't clear from his answers or lawmakers' questions just exactly what he was pledging to provide.
SASC Chairman Sen. Carl Levin and Arizona Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican, both asked Carter for recommendations on how to handle some $20 billion in near-term spending reductions, as well as an assessment for what would happen if the super-committee fails to get a deal and triggers the Doomsday Device. Carter said DoD would give recommendations before the end of the year, but said the Pentagon's "comprehensive strategic review" was still underway so he didn't have any at his fingertips.
It was a change of tune from the previous messaging from the department -- earlier, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told reporters the mega-review would be a part of the fiscal 2013 budget submission, meaning it would come out after the super-committee had succeeded or failed to agree on some $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction. Although Little and other DoD officials made clear they would meet with lawmakers and give assistance to the super committee, they said they felt DoD should be spared from any further budget reductions because it's already agreed to give up around $400 billion.
In other words, the Pentagon leadership wanted to take its own initiative next year with the release of its review and its budget request to Congress, rather than fight a rear-guard action with the super-committee. Carter's admission Tuesday indicates that DoD is less confident it will emerge unscathed from the super-committee's negotiations, and it wants to get its ideas into the mix sooner. Levin said the panel has asked for details about possible defense cuts by mid-October.
Carter did not specifically commit that DoD will release its full "comprehensive review," nor did he specifically commit that DoD would give the Armed Services Committee an assessment for what might happen under the Doomsday sequestration -- though Levin asked for that. Secretary Panetta and other top officials have said they aren't even studying how they would absorb a second round of some $500 billion in budget cuts, because they would be so utterly devastating. The unspoken message was clear: We won't even countenance this possibility.
Carter and Senate lawmakers exhausted their thesauri on Tuesday as they declaimed the prospect of the budget sequestration. They would force DoD into "draconian" cutbacks, furloughs or layoffs, widespread disruptions -- a nightmare, everyone agreed. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Carter agreed that the sequestration might so weaken the U.S. that it would be newly vulnerable to a terrorist attack. "When we say, 'disastrous,' that's exactly the kind of disaster we mean," Carter said.