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The year of the chopping block

By recent Pentagon tradition, the early part of a new calendar year is a bad time to be an under-performing defense program.

Future Combat Systems, the F-22, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, CG(X) and other bold-faced names all have met their end in Defense Department announcements within a few weeks or months of New Year's Day. Former Secretary Gates liked to set the agenda before each year's budget submission to Congress, and for the most part, it worked: Despite angry hearings and cranky lawmakers, much of what Gates wanted stricken ended up staying that way.

Now, with a new year and a new SecDef, the signs are pointing to another installment in the yearly scythe swinging. Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said early in December that Secretary Panetta would roll out DoD's long-awaited mega-review next month, which will cover the Building's view of how it will absorb $450 billion in budget reductions over the coming decade.

"I'm not going to get into speculation on the strategy at this point," Little said, "but I can tell you that the process has been methodical and thorough. It's been led by civilian and military leaders inside this department.  And naturally, we're getting close to making some of those decisions in early 2012.  And as I said, the secretary will have something to say on that in January."

The key difference between Panetta's rollout and Gates' announcements was that Gates was trying to prevent what ended up taking place: Big waves of reduced growth imposed from across the river, beyond what the Pentagon itself was offering up to placate budget hawks. So even though Panetta's announcement will be the third consecutive year a secretary of defense has come out before the cameras and rattled off winners and losers, it will be in a class by itself.

By all appearances, Panetta has to walk a strange tightrope: He'll have a report that embraces some big budget reductions -- or at least acknowledges them -- and yet does not acknowledge the possibility of a second, bigger round starting in January 2013. He'll most likely repeat his warnings that the second round, as part of "sequestration," will leave the U.S. military a hollow force, paper tiger, yadda yadda yadda. And yet he may also repeat his opposition to Congress voiding sequestration or exempting the Pentagon's budget, part of the White House's bid to keep up pressure for a "comprehensive deal" to cut $1.2 trillion from the deficit.

So we could be going into a year in which the ax falls twice: First next month with whatever Panetta announces about roles, missions and programs, and then again 12 months later, if Congress and the White House can't resolve their staring contest about sequestration.

In the meantime, unless Panetta's announcement includes a no-kidding list of programs and priorities set aside as part of DoD's new look, almost everything could be in the crosshairs.

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