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“In the first year, it’s considered a penalty sequestration because the supercommittee failed and you have no ability to target the cuts,” Mr. Harrison said. “They don’t have to make many decisions at all. The decisions are made for them.”

The remaining nine years of sequestration allow the Pentagon flexibility. It will have to pick winners and losers to save its top priorities instead of just slashing everything.

“I think we would see the Pentagon come in with a budget that does actually terminate some weapon systems that are lower priority so it can protect weapon systems that are a higher priority,” he said.

Budget flexibility

Mr. Harrison predicts that the Pentagon, in sequestration’s second year, would shrink the purchase of the F-35s, cut the active carrier force to 10 and retire more warplanes.

The Pentagon’s long-range budget already has absorbed a $487 billion decrease in projected spending over 10 years. The budget law requires an additional $492 billion reduction if Congress does not intervene.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and the military chiefs have invoked stark terms, such as “hollow force,” to describe what the armed services would look like if nearly $1 trillion is taken out of projected spending.

Gordon Adams, senior national security budget official for President Clinton, said that once the Pentagon on Jan. 2 has to suddenly extract $54 billion in the middle of the fiscal year, the jolt will spur action.

“They are not going to plan for the outyears of the sequester, anyway, while the Congress is trying to figure out what to do about it,” Mr. Adams said. “The reality, I think, is even if there is a sequester, Congress will do what Congress has done the last four times there was a sequester. Congress fixes it after it happens.

“What I fully expect the next step is Congress steps in with the White House and they figure out a way to fix it.”

He said the Pentagon may have more flexibility in the first year than it appears now because the White House Budget Office has not ruled on exactly how to carry out the budget act.

“Anybody who tells you with certainty how this will happen should there be a sequester is fooling you because they don’t know what options [the Defense Department] is going to choose and how [the Office of Management and Budget] is going to define it,” Mr. Adams said.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is leading the charge to reverse sequestration.

He issued a fact sheet that declares: “In the midst of the most dynamic and complex security environment in recent memory, sequestration would severely diminish America’s global posture.”

Mr. McKeon said the military would have to cut 100,000 additional troops, shrink the Navy to 230 ships instead of its goal of more than 300 and fly “the smallest tactical fighter force in the history of the Air Force.”

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