March sequester would degrade US defense forces, says Panetta

If Congress fails to head off the new sequestration deadline in March, the Defense Department will be forced to halt training, ground military aircraft and call ships back to port, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Jan. 10.

Although lawmakers were able to delay the sequester that would trigger $50 billion in the near term, "the sequester threat, [was] not removed,” Panetta said, adding, "“And the prospect … is undermining our ability to responsibly manage this department.”

The threat of such "meat-axe cuts" to the defense budget ultimately would not only degrade military operations necessary for national security, but also force the DOD to tell civilian employees that they would have to go on furlough.

Sequestration would force the DOD to cut approximately $500 billion from its budget over the next 10 years. Congress postponed the start of sequestration earlier this month so that it would have more time to work with President Obama to find ways to reduce the nation's debt.

The first steps following a sequester would be to scale back facility maintenance, freeze civilian hiring and delay a number of contract awards, Panetta said. Other steps such as limiting training, grounding aircraft and bringing ships back to port would follow.  

The DOD has put a "precautionary" plan in place to implement civilian layoffs if sequester happens, the secretary said. “This action is strictly precautionary,” he said. “I want to make that clear: It's precautionary. But I have an obligation to … let Congress know that we may have to do that, and I very much hope that we will not have to furlough anyone. But we've got to be prepared to do that if we face this situation.”

Panetta said the net result of sequester under a continuing resolution would be “what I said we should not do with the defense budget, which is to hollow out the defense force of this nation.” Rather than let that happen, Panetta added, DOD leaders have decided to take steps to minimize the damage that would follow Congressional inaction.

“We still have an obligation to protect this country,” the secretary said. “So for that reason, I've asked the military services and the other components to immediately begin implementing prudent measures that will help mitigate our budget risk.”

Panetta said he has directed any actions taken “must be reversible to the extent feasible and must minimize harmful effects on readiness.” 

The secretary also has directed the services to develop detailed plans for how they will implement sequester-triggered cuts, if required, he said, “because there will be so little time to respond in the current fiscal year. I mean, we're almost halfway through the fiscal year.”

The secretary said the intensive planning effort now under way will ensure the military is prepared to accomplish its core missions.

“I want to emphasize, however, that … no amount of planning that we do can fully offset the harm that would result from sequestration, if that happens,” he said.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also participated in the briefing, noted sequestration may now hit while the department, under a continuing resolution, is also implementing “the deep cuts already made in the Budget Control Act” and fighting a war in Afghanistan.

“Any one of these would be a serious challenge on its own,” Dempsey said. “Together, they set the conditions for readiness to pass a tipping point as early as March.”

DOD won’t shortchange those in combat, and will resource those who are next to deploy while still caring for wounded warriors and their families, the chairman said.

“But for the rest of the force, operations, maintenance and training will be gutted,” Dempsey said. “We'll ground aircraft, return ships to port, and sharply curtail training across the force. … [W]e may be forced to furlough civilians at the expense of maintenance and even health care. We'll be unable to reset the force following a decade of war.”

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