Without a budget accord, Pentagon prepares for furloughs

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 20, 2013 

— Tanks would not roll, fighter jets would be grounded and aircraft carriers might be stuck dockside.

In addition, the Defense’s Department 800,000-member civilian workforce likely would go without paychecks at times throughout the year if mandatory federal budget cuts go into effect March 1, top Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

The department, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a memo to employees, “will be forced to place the vast majority of its civilian workforce on administrative furlough.”

Moreover, by the end of September, two-thirds of U.S. Army combat troops would be “unacceptable” in terms of military readiness, potentially affecting the ability to deploy warriors to replace those already deployed, officials said.

“There is no mistaking that the rigid nature of the cuts forced upon this department, and their scale, will result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force,” Panetta wrote.

With barely a week to go before the $85 billion in across-the-board federal budget cuts become reality, defense officials released the most detailed look to date of their effects. The looming budget ax is the result of the inability of Democrats and Republicans to reach a deal that would satisfy their own agreed-to Budget Control Act of 2011.

The Pentagon is faced with $46 billion in cuts. Asked during a press conference if such dire outcomes weren’t simply scare tactics, Comptroller Robert Hale said, “We don’t have a lot of choices. . . . I think we’re going to have serious readiness effects. I don’t see where we’re going to get the money. We’re going to have to cut back on training significantly.”

While troops already deployed won’t be directly affected by these deep cuts, the lack of training could affect future deployments, especially in the Army, but across all the services.

Acting Under Secretary of Defense Jessica Wright said that the cuts would be felt by everyone, in all services and in all locations. She noted the “invaluable service” of civilian employees and said that furloughs would leave military personnel worrying about spouses and kids at home who rely on the Pentagon’s civilian workforce for various services, like commissaries, schools and medical care.

“The effects of sequestration on the military will be devastating, but on our civilians, it will be catastrophic,” she said. “These critical members of our work force work in our depots, they maintain and repair our tanks, our aircraft, our ships.”

The pain of these budget cuts would reverberate through many parts of the United States, Wright said. The Pentagon released a state-by-state breakdown of the expected lost wages for civilian employees if furloughs begin, as is now expected, toward the end of April.

In his memo, Panetta said that employees with impending furloughs would be notified at least 30 days ahead of time.

Employees in 50 states would lose income, resulting in net losses, from $660 million in Virginia to $3 million in Vermont. In all, the civilian furloughs would result in a savings of about $4.6 billion in the United States and $265 million at installations around the world.

While not all Defense Department civilians would be looking at pay cuts that they noted come close to 20 percent for over half a fiscal year, the exempted employees are few and include those in war zones, those essential to protect life and property, and political appointees.

In all, sequestration would lead to “cutbacks and delays in 2,500 defense programs,” officials said, and could result in military contract costs increasing in future years.

Email:mschofield@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @mattschodcnews

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