Head shaking in disbelief, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta enumerated the changes that may take place at the Pentagon goes into advanced planning mode for sequestration.
In a Thursday afternoon press conference with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, Panetta was dour and his language grim.
With a six-month fiscal year remaining to implement the first year of sequestration cuts if Congress does not avoid them, and increasing speculation that Congress can‚??t and won‚??t, Pentagon planners can no longer afford to ignore the prospect of sequestration as absurd.
And the situation at the sequestration deadline in March will be compounded, Panetta said, by the debt ceiling crisis and the failure of lawmakers to pass the Defense Department‚??s current-year appropriations bill. Even if the sequester is stopped, operating on a continuing resolution without passage of the spending bill could cost the Pentagon billions, he said.
‚??The fact is, looking that all three of those (crises), we have no idea what the hell’s going to happen,‚?Ě Panetta said. ‚??This uncertainty if left unresolved by the congress will seriously harm our military readiness.‚?Ě
Dempsey was even grimmer.
‚??This is an irresponsible way to manage our national defense,‚?Ě he said. ‚??Readiness is what’s now in jeopardy. We’re on the brink of creating a hollow force.‚?Ě
Early planning shows, Panetta said, that early casualties of the decade-long, $500 billion cut package would be reductions in ship training, in pilot flying hours, and ship maintenance and upkeep. While Panetta and Dempsey said troops deploying to combat zones and those on deck to deploy would be shielded from the cuts, other units would be taxed with cutbacks. And unpaid furloughs for civilian DoD workers would affect everyone in the department–perhaps most significantly regarding health care.
Even before sequestration, Panetta said, he has begun to ask the various military services to begin implementing cost-saving measures such as pausing facility maintenance, delaying certain contract awards, and implementing a civilian hiring freeze.
These measures, he said, ‚??must be reversible to the extent feasible and minimize harmful effects on readiness.‚?Ě
Meanwhile, planners have been directed to develop a detailed scheme describing how to implement full sequestration if it‚??s required.
‚??No amount of planning that we do could fully offset the harm that would result from sequestration if that happens,‚?Ě Panetta said, sending a plea to Capitol Hill: ‚??The simple fact is that this fiscal uncertainty has become a very serious threat to our national security.‚?Ě
While the Pentagon has faced cutbacks in the past as periods of war wind down, proponents of maintaining the defense budget argue that the nation faces at least another year of war, plus threats and contingencies now that call for a ready force as never before. In addition, the Defense Department has already shouldered $487 billion worth of cuts under the 2011 Budget Control Act, and top officials say cutting further would hollow the force and leave troops unable to respond to major crises.