(WASHINGTON) — Defense Secretary Panetta isn’t waiting for another round of sequestration anticipation — he’s taken action and announced the first preparations for possible budget cuts in March.
In the previous countdown to sequestration and the fiscal cliff Panetta just wished it would go away. But not this time. Sequestration would mean $500 billion in Defense spending cuts triggered if there’s no increase to the debt ceiling.
“We really have no choice but to prepare for the worst,” Mr. Panetta said at a news conference Thursday afternoon with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He later said, “We simply cannot sit back now.”
Panetta has directed the military services to immediately implement what he called “prudent measures that will help mitigate our budget risk” from sequestration. This includes a freeze on the hiring of civilians, a delay in awarding contracts and trimming facility maintenance. He’s also directed the services to come up with detailed planning for how they’d implement sequestration because there really isn’t much time left in the fiscal year. The planning would include unpaid furloughs for the civilian workforce.
“For now, I’ve made clear that these actions must be reversible to the extent feasible and must minimize harmful effects on readiness. But we really have no choice but to prepare for the worst,” Panetta said. He doesn’t know how much the moves will save.
Panetta’s opening statement also contained a warning about a “perfect storm of budget uncertainty” that could affect the Pentagon budget in March: possible sequestration cuts on March 1, the March 27 end of the temporary funding measure known as the Continuing Resolution, and an $11 billion cut in Army and Marine spending to keep funding the war in Afghanistan if the cuts take place.
“And the fact is, looking at all three of those, 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,” he said.
Panetta warned that while sequestration is supposed to trim nine percent from the DOD budget, the combination of the three factors above will actually total 19 to 20 percent in Pentagon cuts. He said the impact on the Army would actually feel like a 30-percent cut.
Those kinds of cuts would lead to serious training cuts for Army units, reductions in ship training, cuts in flying hours for pilots and ships being pulled out of maintenance.
Gen. Dempsey also warned that March could “set the conditions for readiness to pass a tipping point.”
He added, “Our readiness will begin to erode. Within months, we’ll be less prepared. Within a year, we’ll be unprepared.”
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