Defense officials have begun "serious planning" for automatic spending cuts that could force the Pentagon to lay off hundreds of thousands of civilian workers as it reduces its budget by $500 billion over the next 10 years.
"We are doing some serious planning for sequestration," Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters Tuesday. "We need to be ready, and we're working through those numbers right now."
Known as sequestration, the across-the-board, automatic reductions are set to begin March 1, unless Congress reaches a deal on taxes and spending. Under sequestration, about $1 trillion is to be trimmed from the federal budget, with the Pentagon accounting for about half of that amount.
As many as 800,000 civilian employees in the Pentagon eventually could be laid off, defense officials say.
"We're going to do right by our employees, in terms of communication and do what we have to do to follow the law," Mr. Little said Tuesday. "No decisions have been reached yet, but we're actively consulting with the Office of Management and Budget to see what actions we may need to take in advance of the 1 March fiscal cliff deadline."
He said the spending cuts could "require us to substantially modify and scale back our new defense strategy," which calls for the U.S. military to shift assets and focus to the Asia-Pacific region, and could necessitate reductions in war-planning efforts.
The cuts also could disrupt troop readiness and training for Army and Marine Corps units deploying to Afghanistan, the Pentagon spokesman said.
"It could very well have an impact on morale," Mr. Little said. "We've heard that already on the front lines in Afghanistan. The troops have serious questions about sequestration. This is not just a Washington issue."
In addition, the spending cuts could force base commissaries — where service personnel buy goods and groceries — to reduce their hours of operation, and delay payments to medical services providers and investment programs.
U.S. officials said that, if sequestration begins in March, about $42.5 billion would be cut from the defense budget over the following seven months.
Civilian workers would be notified of layoffs after sequestration has begun and would be given about 30 days' advance notice. Layoffs would not occur all at once, but would be carried out on a rolling basis for up to 22 days.
Meanwhile, the Defense Department is operating on a continuing resolution that will expire March 27. Congress will have to approve the fiscal 2013 defense appropriations bill by then to continue funding Pentagon operations through Sept. 30.
"But let me be very clear about the current budget situation," Mr. Little said. "I could try to be somewhat artful and diplomatic, but I will boil it down to this: It is, at this stage, a mess. This is highly problematic."
"This is not just about cells in Excel spreadsheets," he said. "This is about the defense of the United States and the people who serve in United States military and our civilian personnel, also, who carry out missions in support of the defense of this nation."
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