- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The nation’s highest-ranking military officers convened at the Pentagon last week to discuss the smaller armed forces they will inherit once $450 billion in cuts commence in 2013.

A defense source briefed on the discussion with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said scenarios such as confronting a world crisis with nine aircraft carriers instead of the current 11 were discussed.

Officials also talked about meeting world requirements with an active/reserve force that is tens of thousands of personnel fewer than the current 2.2 million all-volunteer military.

The officers, who command troops in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, had their first face-to-face meeting with Mr. Panetta since Congress‘ so-called supercommittee failed last month to agree on a long-term budget deal, trigging automatic Pentagon cuts of an additional $500 billion.

The Defense Department’s public position is that “sequestration,” as the cuts are called, are not officially on the table inside the Pentagon’s budget-crunching offices.

Mr. Panetta has not yet ordered the services to draw up a five-year budget based on that maximum-reduction figure. He is waiting to see if Congress can reach a deficit-reduction deal that would keep cuts at an already agreed-upon $450 billion, not the $1 trillion figure.

Congress has all of next year to reach a new deal, since sequestration would not begin until January 2013.

On Thursday, Mr. Panetta met with the Joint Chiefs and his combatant commanders - the four-star officers whose commands drive the requirements for personnel, ships, tanks and aircraft.

A defense source briefed on the meetings said the admirals and generals talked about various budget scenarios, including what Mr. Panetta has called the “doomsday” ending of $1 trillion in cuts.

“They looked at higher-level issues that will drive the lower budget issues,” said the source. “They have begun a process to look at sequestration.”

But a second source said there was no specific discussion of the most drastic cuts.

For now, the Pentagon is planning the next five-year budget, of which the fiscal 2013 version goes to Congress in February, based on cuts that lawmakers and the White House agreed to this summer.

“When it comes to sequestration, we have not been asked to plan for it,” Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters last week. “Our focus right now is on dealing with the more than $450 billion we’ve already agreed to in cuts. And that will drive the submission of the department’s FY ‘13 budget.”

Mr. Panetta has launched a strategy review due in January that will lay out the military’s future missions and what is needed to carry them out.

“If we do this in a strategy-driven manner, and if we look to find savings in certain areas that lead us to an effective fighting force that may be smaller and more agile and more deployable, we’ll still have the capabilities we need to confront the threats of the future,” Mr. Little said. “Then we’ll absolutely be able to support the security needs of this country and our commitments around the world.”

Of Mr. Panetta’s meetings with regional commanders, Mr. Little said: “A range of security issues were discussed, as was the budget. No particular decisions were made about any of that, but this was the opportunity for him to receive input from senior military leaders, and he thought it was a very productive session.”

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