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“I can’t even find anyone who will tell me even privately that they are doing any analysis,” said Daniel Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, a think tank focused on the defense industry.

Why? “If you plan for it, then it becomes more real, or then you can find a way of actually making it work,” Mr. Goure said. “Any planning for it makes it real. And their choice is to treat it as if it’s unreal, at the highest levels. It’s not going to happen. Congress will comes to its senses.”

‘Behind the eight ball’

He added: “A second reason is, OK, you start analyzing this, and you analyze it not in the worst way, but if I had my druthers here is how I would take the cuts. And that leaks out. Once that leaks out, you would have political firestorms all over the place.”

Mackenzie Eaglen, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, said Mr. Panetta needs to face the prospect now and avoid the rush.

“Politically, [Department of Defense] leaders are rightly reluctant to want to begin, because the very process makes sequestration more acceptable and ultimately more likely,” she said. “But procedurally, the Pentagon is behind the eight ball in planning for sequestration, a prospect that grows more possible by the day. DoD should be building an alternate budget now in order to properly build an more informed budget for fiscal year 2014.”

Mr. Panetta, a former Democratic congressman from California, told reporters earlier this month that he cannot accept the current Republican 2013 budget that avoids sequestration.

“I’m grateful to the House for recognizing the importance of stopping sequestration,” he said. “But by taking these funds from the poor, middle-class Americans, homeowners and other vulnerable parts of our American constituencies, the guaranteed results will be confrontation, gridlock and a greater likelihood of sequester. … The key is to work together. Each side can stake out its political position. I understand that. But the fact is that nothing will happen without compromise from both sides.”