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Panetta warns of severe reductions in operations if March sequester occurs

Jan. 10, 2013 - 09:01PM   |  
By MARCUS WEISGERBER   |   Comments
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who is scheduled to retire in the coming months, has spoken against cutting the Pentagon beyond the $487 billion already removed from DoD coffers over a 10-year period back in 2011.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who is scheduled to retire in the coming months, has spoken against cutting the Pentagon beyond the $487 billion already removed from DoD coffers over a 10-year period back in 2011. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

The U.S. Defense Department is preparing to ground military aircraft and call ships back to port should the Pentagon get hit with nearly $50 billion in budget cuts in March.

Senior defense officials appear to be losing hope that congressional leaders and the White House will be able to come up with a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan before the spending cuts are enacted.

“[W]e have no idea what the hell’s going to happen,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta bluntly said during a Jan. 10 briefing at the Pentagon. “All told, this uncertainty, if left unresolved by the Congress, will seriously harm our military readiness.”

Defense officials say their long-term planning is hamstrung because Congress had not passed an appropriations bill for 2013, meaning spending is frozen at 2012 budget levels. At the same time, sequestration, which calls for more than $500 billion in cuts over 10 years and between $45 billion and $48 billion in 2013, is scheduled to begin in March.

The U.S. could also hit its so-called debt ceiling, which could lead to a government shut down.

All of these events happening within a month is “a perfect storm of budget uncertainty,” Panetta said. In preparation, the defense secretary has ordered the military services to come up with ways to meet the 2013 portion of sequestration cuts, which must be implemented between March and September.

“The burn rate is unsustainable, and we have to now take measures to prepare ourselves for that eventuality,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during the same briefing.

Panetta, who is scheduled to retire in the coming months, has spoken against cutting the Pentagon beyond the $487 billion already removed from DoD coffers over a 10-year period back in 2011. Panetta offered some of the sternest language on the matter this week.

“We have a vital mission to perform, one that the American people expect and that they are entitled to, which is to protect their safety and to protect our national security,” he said. “Congress must be a partner in that mission. I’d love to be able to do this alone, but I can’t.”

Earlier this month, Congress delayed the beginning of sequestration from January to March, in hopes lawmakers and President Barack Obama could strike a deal to lower the nation’s debt. While Panetta said he has not given up hope that Congress will remedy these fiscal issues in that time frame, he is less confident than he was a year ago.

“My fear in talking to members of Congress is that this issue may now be in a very difficult place, in terms of their willingness to confront what needs to be done to de-trigger sequester,” he said.

If the current continuing resolution is extended for the remainder of the fiscal year, DoD’s operations and maintenance budget would be cut about $11 billion, Panetta said. Sequestration would have to cut another $18 billion from those accounts. In order to fully fund operations in Afghanistan, DoD would need to take an addition $11 billion out of its domestic operations and maintenance budget.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter issued guidance on Jan. 10, telling the Air Force and the Navy to cancel maintenance on its aircraft and ships in the third and fourth quarters to meet those targets.

“It would mean reductions … in ship training, except for our highest priority units, reductions in flying hours, in pilot training, and ships would have to be pulled out of maintenance, and disruptions to almost every weapon modernization and research program,” Panetta said.

“We’ll ground aircraft, return ships to port, and sharply curtail training across the force,” Dempsey added.

DoD will also delay certain contract awards, Panetta said. Carter’s guidance to the services and agency heads also tells them to freeze civilian hiring, reduce base funding and halt travel.

“I’ve made clear that these actions must be reversible to the extent feasible and must minimize harmful effects on readiness,” Panetta said. “But we really have no choice but to prepare for the worst.”

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