Defense leaders: Planning for sequester has not started

With members of Congress preparing to depart the hill until after the election with the sequester threat still hanging over their heads, top defense leaders said they were still acting as if the fiscal disaster would be averted.

House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) called a hearing with Defense Department comptroller Robert Hale and the vice chiefs of each of the service branches to give them one more chance to express the implications of the massive military budget cuts scheduled to take effect next year.

???This could well be the last opportunity for our military to get these facts on the record before the deadline for a remedy has passed,??? he told them.

A report released by the White House Office of Management and Budget on Friday was expected to yield more detail about exactly what the planned cuts to defense and domestic spending would mean in the next fiscal year, but the document did little more than explain which spending accounts would be subject to sequestration and how percentages would be applied.

Hale made it clear that military officials weren???t yet ready to name programs, contracts, or units that might get the axe.

???We don???t want to sequester ourselves. We???re not going to start cutting back right now in anticipation of sequestration,??? he said. ???But we know it???s there. It???s in the back of our minds. As we move closer to this event, we will have to move to specific planning.???

What defense leaders do know is that overseas contingency operations, or war funds, are not exempted from the cuts, which means other accounts will have to take on steeper reductions to make sure troops downrange have what they need.

???We will protect the wartime operating budgets as we can, but that will result in greater cuts,??? Hale said.

Since military personnel accounts are also safe for the first year, sequestration is most likely to hurt the military civilian workforce, resulting in hiring freezes and furloughs; limit services to purchasing fewer weapons and forcing them to cut back on larger investment programs, and creating delays on larger programs, such as shipbuilding.

For the Marine Corps, a branch that bills itself as ???America???s 911 force,??? Assistant Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford warned that cuts might make quick-fire responses such as the Marine anti-terrorism team scrambled to Libya in the wake of the embassy shootings less possible.

???Sequestration will have a chaotic effect on our force during a time of extreme challenges to our national security,??? he said.

Hale made it clear that the Pentagon was not yet ready to answer when it would begin planning for sequestration in earnest, a question that legislators and reporters have been asking for months.

???We will wait as long as we can to begin this process,??? he said. ???I feel like I spend all my time these days planning for something I fervently hope won???t happen.???