PENTAGON— The U.S. defense department is bracing for massive cuts as a March 1 deadline draws near for the White House and Congress to reach a budget deal and avert automatic cuts to the entire federal budgetn, known as sequestration.
Among the early signs of tough times that sequester will bring: the Pentagon this month announced will not deploy the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman to the Persian Gulf.
The timing for the massive cuts is bad. A change of leadership at the Pentagon is under way and departing Secretary Leon Panetta leaves no doubt his successor will be walking into a budget mess.
"If these cuts happen, there will be serious disruption in defense programs and a sharp decline in our military readiness. We have already begun an all-out effort to plan for how to operate under such a scenario, but it's also very clear that there are no good options," Panetta said.
Troop training and maintenance of aircraft and ships would be delayed or suspended. The defense department faces the deepest cuts: $46 billion in the next seven months alone. Panetta says the damage will be far-reaching.
“We will furlough as many as 800,000 DOD civilians around the country for up to 22 days," Panetta said. "They could face a 20 percent cut in their salary. You don’t think that’s going to impact on our economy?
The sequester reductions come on top of a 10-year program of cuts - totaling nearly $500 billion - which were announced earlier but have not yet begun.
For Panetta’s successor, the job will be to run a smaller military with less money but growing threats -- spanning from the Middle East to Africa and North Korea.
Anthony Cordesman is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Basically, it’s a slash and burn operation, initially at least, until the Congress turns it off. And then the question is no one knows -- will it be a continuing resolution? Will it be something going back to the previous level,” Cordesman asked.
When the cuts end depends on how soon Congress and the White House reach a budget deal. In the meantime, the concern among security analysts and Pentagon leaders is the extent of damage that could be done to the nation’s defenses.