Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Thursday that he has directed the Pentagon and each of the Joint Chiefs to start detailed planning for deep cuts in military spending.
The planning will help mitigate risks to defense readiness if automatic, across-the-board federal spending reductions begin March 1, Mr. Panetta said during a Pentagon briefing.
The 2011 Budget Control Act calls for automatic cuts of $500 billion over the next decade to the defense budget if Congress cannot agree on how to reduce the $1.2 trillion deficit. The so-called "fiscal cliff" deal lawmakers reached last week delayed the cuts, known as sequestration, until March 1.
Mr. Panetta said he has directed the Joint Chiefs to immediately take prudent measures including curtailing facility maintenance, freezing civilian hiring, and delaying certain contract awards, among other actions.
He also directed the chiefs to plan for possible civilian furloughs, but stressed that the planning is "strictly precautionary" in case sequestration is not averted. Under sequestration, the Pentagon would be forced to trim $42 billion from its budget for the last seven months of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
"We really have no choice but to prepare for the worse," the defense secretary said.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended the briefing with Mr. Panetta. "Sequestration is a self-inflicted wound on national security," the general said.
If sequestration occurs, "we will be unable to reset the force after a decade of war," Gen. Dempsey said. "We have no choice but to steel ourselves from the consequences."
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