Panetta to services: 'Prepare for the worst' on budget cuts
WASHINGTON — The secretary of defense has asked the services to immediately cut spending to offset the impact of possible sequestration in March.
“We really have no choice but to prepare for the worst,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters at a Pentagon news briefing Thursday. “Regardless of what Congress does or fails to do, we still have an obligation to protect this country.”
Panetta said immediate cuts will include a civilian hiring freeze, delaying facility maintenance and some contract awards. He also asked military leaders to develop more detailed plans about how they would implement sequestration cuts in March, if necessary.
Those plans will include furloughs for civilian workers, he said.
Earlier this month, Congress came to an agreement to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, but instead of eliminating the threat of sequestration, the deal simply delayed the automatic, across-the-board cuts until March 1.
“Postponing sequestration doesn’t prevent, it just prolongs the uncertainty for our force and for our military families,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Readiness is what’s now in jeopardy. We’re on the brink of creating a hollow force, the very thing we said we must avoid.”
Absorbing billions of dollars in cuts nearly halfway through the fiscal year would be even more damaging to the military, Panetta and Dempsey said, which is why the military must take steps now to prepare.
If sequestration does take effect, Dempsey said, troops in combat, those about to deploy to combat and wounded warriors will be protected.
“But for the rest of the force, operations, maintenance and training will be gutted. We’ll ground aircraft, return ships to port, and sharply curtail training across the force,” he said. “Within months, we’ll be less prepared. Within a year, we’ll be unprepared.”
The looming threat of sequestration along with the possibility that Congress could again fail to pass a defense funding bill and the potential for a debt ceiling crisis could create “a perfect storm of budget uncertainty,” Panetta said.
The combination of those factors could mean cuts of up to 20 percent in the base operating budgets for active-duty units, including a cut of almost 30 percent for the Army, he said.
“The fact is, looking at all three of those, we have no idea what the hell’s going to happen,” he said. “I’d like to believe that ultimately the Congress will do the right thing. But the problem is this: I thought last year that sequestration was so nuts that there wasn’t a chance it would happen. … We simply cannot sit back now and not be prepared for the worst.”