For Pentagon planners, automatic spending cuts slated to begin in January have become the $600 billion contingency they can't plan for.
Military planners are under strict orders not to devise scenarios for meeting the demands of "sequestration," as the automatic, across-the-board spending reductions are called. Such paperwork, if leaked, would tell Congress there might be a way to deal with such drastic cuts.
"The department is not currently planning for sequestration," Air Force Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told The Washington Times. The White House budget office "has not directed agencies, including [the Defense Department], to initiate any plans for sequestration."
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who has warned of a "hollow" force if the automatic cuts occur, has said there is no alternative long-range budget. The only spending plan being considered is his five-year budget that begins the Budget Control Act's $487 billion in defense cuts over the next 10 years. Sequestration would slash an additional $600 billion from the Pentagon budget.
Defense sources say the lack of planning goes even further: The armed services have talked of the dire consequences of sequestration, which would require deeper troop cuts and missions left undone. But they are not creating studies that would spell out specific reductions in weapons or programs for fear it sends a signal that such downsizing is doable.
Failing to plan
In April, for example, a group of outside analysts met with Army budget officials at the Pentagon to hear how the service will deal with known cuts. When analysts asked about the looming next stage, sequestration, the officials said they could not even begin to plan.
"They said they had all been ordered not to. It would be a violation. It would be a crime," one participant told The Times.
An Army officer said, according to the participant: "I would be disobeying orders. I would be violating my orders and essentially committing a criminal act if I did any analytics on sequestration at this point."
There are rumors in the defense industry that the Pentagon has set up secret cells to write a sequestration budget — something military officials say is untrue.
However, a source inside the Pentagon told The Times that senior leaders do meet to discuss unofficially what might have to go if sequestration happens.
"Small, tight-lipped groups at senior levels are informally discussing these issues behind closed doors," said this well-placed source. "These discussions cannot be discussed formally or openly due to the political ramifications. Any leaks of what must be chopped or what must be protected would be derailed at this stage by D.C. politics.
"The cuts will be so devastating that they are being prioritized by pure military need with little concern for political patrons and their pet projects."
Congress does not appear close to reaching a deal that would head off $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts, $600 billion of which would strike the Pentagon over the next 10 years, bringing total reductions to more than $1 trillion.
For now, that prospect is the proverbial elephant in the room.
"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."
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