Defense Secretary Leon Panetta realizes he will have only a short time to find $52 billion worth of savings in the Pentagon's 2013 budget if Congress fails to reach an agreement by March 1 to eliminate the sequester cuts.
To mitigate some of the damage to military readiness, the Pentagon authorized civilian hiring freezes while instructing managers to devise plans to institute furloughs to civilians for up to 30 calendar days.
Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went further in explaining the military is getting close to grounding aircraft and returning ships to port in order to make up for the budget cuts that increasingly look more likely. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said Friday the Air Force will have to severely cut flying hours and restrict necessary maintenance to aging aircraft.
“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 said March is shaping up to be "perfect storm of budget uncertainty." The sequester deadline will occur the same month as the debt ceiling debate and the expiration date for the Continuing Resolution that funds the Pentagon. If Congress chooses to extend the CR, the Pentagon will have to absorb an additional $11 billion cut. The sequester cuts would impose an $18 billion cut on the Pentagon's fiscal year 2013 budget.
“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.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter issued a memo Thursday outlining the near term actions the Pentagon will take in order to prepare for March. Pentagon leaders have changed their tune from one where they denied planning for sequestration to one where it sounds more inevitable than doubtful.
In the memo, Carter listed near term actions the military will begin taking in the next few weeks. Those listed below are taken directly from the list Carter and Panetta authorized in the memo:
- Impose hiring freezes
- Authorize voluntary separation incentives and voluntary early retirements to the extent feasible.
- Consider the possibility of furloughs of up to 30 calendar days or 22 discontinuous workdays
- Reduce base operating funding.
-Curtail travel, training, and conferences (all with exceptions for mission-critical activities including those required to maintain professional licensure or equivalent certifications).
- Curtail facilities maintenance
- Curtail administrative expenses such as supply purchases, business IT, ceremones, etc.
- Review contracts and studies for possible cost-savings.
- Cancel 3rd and 4th quarter ship maintenance availabilities and aviation and ground depot level maintenance activities. Take this action no earlier than Feb. 15, 2013.
- Clear all R&D and production contracts and contract modifications that obligate more than $500 million with the USD(AT&L) prior to award.
- For Science and Technology accounts, provide the USD(AT&L) and the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Research and Engineering) with an assessment of the impact that budgetary uncertainty may have on meeting Department research priorities.
With each one of those actions in mind, Panetta and Dempsey stressed that war operations, wounded warriors and families will be protected from any cuts ahead of March. Of course, many families serve as Defense Department civilians so those family budgets will likely get smaller in the event a furlough is executed.
Panetta and Dempsey's decision to issue these warnings in a very public way was seen by defense analysts as their attempt to keep the military in the national debate. Many inside the Pentagon worry the military could easily be swept into the cuts under the debt ceiling negotiations should the Pentagon's leaders not make a more public display of the effects the cuts will have on the military.