By Tom Vanden Brook
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday that civilian military employees will be told this month they will be furloughed in April because of automatic budget cuts and inflexible spending rules hitting the Pentagon.
Automatic spending cuts required by the 2011 budget bill went into effect Friday because of the failure of the White House and Congress to reach a deal to stop them.
The Pentagon is also operating under a budget plan, set to expire March 27, that is a continuation of the 2012 budget. Hagel and other Pentagon officials say that spending plan has not been adjusted to reflect changing conditions in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Hagel said he knows “the budget cuts will cause pain” but said they would not allow the military’s “capability to erode.”
Among the immediate actions to save money, Hagel cited:
The Navy will idle four wings of aircraft.
The Air Force will limit pilot training.
Army units not deploying to Afghanistan will have limited training.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said eventually that will lead to a loss of readiness “that’s not safe.”
Hagel avoided the more dire tone of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said the cuts would make the United States a “second-rate power,” and said he hoped a solution can be reached that will “avert tremendous damage.”
The United States, Hagel said, has the world’s most capable military, and despite the problems caused by the spending cuts, he and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will not let that capability erode.
“I will do everything in my power to make sure America upholds its commitment to its allies,” Hagel in a news conference at the Pentagon.
Meantime, longtime Pentagon budget experts predicted milder effects of the reductions mandated by sequestration and the restrictions on shifting funds related to Congress’ failure to pass a spending plan for 2013. And Todd Harrison, from the non-partisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, cautioned Pentagon officials need to be careful with their dire rhetoric.
“This is not going to make us a second-rate power by any means,” Harrison said, referring to comments former Defense secretary Leon Panetta first made to USA TODAY. Also Friday, Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told CBS that the cuts constitute the “greatest national security threat” to the United States.
The cuts forced by sequestration and continuing to spend under the 2012 budget plan will total $46 billion over the next seven months for the military. That’s about 9% of the Pentagon’s budget. The reductions will have real impacts and are bad policy, Harrison said, but will not render the military incapable of defending the country.
“Sequestration will create a mess, but I wouldn’t characterize it as a catastrophe,” Harrison said.
The effects for the military will be gradual and likely won’t begin to be evident immediately, said Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University and a budget official in the Clinton administration. Furloughs, if they do happen for the majority of the Pentagon’s 800,000 civilian employees, won’t happen until later in April.
Overall, the reductions at the Pentagon will be more like a slope than a cliff, Adams said, not the dramatic plunge predicted by some of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“They’ll happen gradually over time,” Adams predicted.
Harrison also faulted the Pentagon for failing to anticipate mandatory cuts. Late last year, Carter told military budget officers not to plan for sequestration under the assumption that a solution would be reached by Congress and the White House.
The Pentagon has committed to reducing the growth of its spending increases over the next decade by $487 billion. If sequestration continues for that long, the military would face another $500 billion in cuts.