DoD getting down to brass tacks with 2014 sequestration cuts

Friday - 7/19/2013, 6:39am EDT

By Cogan Schneier
Special to Federal News Radio

Several months after submitting a 2014 budget that assumed sequestration would be undone by Congress, the Defense Department now is working on a detailed contingency plan that takes the automatic budget cuts into account.

DoD is in the process of preparing specifics on a plan for fiscal 2014, which should be completed by Oct. 1, Adm. James A. Winnefeld said Thursday during his confirmation hearing for a second term as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He spoke alongside Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, who also is awaiting confirmation for a second two-year term.

In response to a congressional request for a spending plan that complied with sequestration, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined the consequences of a $52 billion budget cut in a letter to the committee last week. Hagel did not mention specific cuts that would be made or their potential outcomes in the letter.

Five budget exercises going on

Senators expressed disappointment with Hagel's lack of specifics around the cuts that DoD would make if sequestration persisted into 2014. But Winnefeld said the letter only was intended to provide the "rough contours" of the effects of prolonged budget caps. He said providing line-by-line details on a sequestered 2014 budget would take much more work.

"It's important for us to keep in mind there are about five things the service budget planners are having to go through right now," Winnefeld said. "They're going through what [fiscal 2014] is going to look like under the conditions that were asked for in the letter. They're finalizing what execution would look like under the president's budget. They're also having to develop two or three different scenarios for the 2015-19 budget, and these people are furloughed once a week. So, it's a little tough to produce fine detail that quickly. But the services have been given a task, and I believe they'll have an execution plan before the first of October."

Hagel said Tuesday that he ordered 20 percent "across the top" budget cuts for headquarters elements across the DoD.

Winnefeld said the reductions, set to start in 2015, would apply to every worker in the headquarters of the military services, the Joint Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and DoD's combatant commands, not just top brass.

"This is a significant cut, and we offered it," he said. "We believe we have to be more efficient. Never waste a crisis. And so it's the entire staff."

More time to cut spending

Though the cuts required by sequestration are difficult, the Pentagon could handle them much more sensibly if they were applied over a longer time period, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said during a security forum at the Aspen Institute in Colorado Thursday.

Carter said DoD is taking "very seriously" the prospect that the political gridlock that let sequestration take effect during 2013 will drag on, and that the failsafe budget levels the Budget Control Act set out for the next decade will become the "new normal."

"Because that's the path of least resistance for the political system. If a big deal can't be put together by the Congress, we'll drift into next year with some continuation of this. Our responsibility is to be prepared for that eventuality," he said. "We're going to do our level-best to make the strategic transition to the Asia-Pacific, get rid of old things we don't need as fast as we can, get new things, treat our people as decently as we can, recognizing that we're going to have to shed people."

Military leaders also are concerned about sequestration's effect on the civilian workforce, especially as the baby boomer generation begins to retire. Budget cuts threaten programs designed to recruit talented youth, and losing that capacity will be damaging to the long-term health of the workforce, officials said.

Winnefeld said government personnel policies tend to require the use of "last-in, first-out" approaches to workforce reductions.

"As we get smaller, that's the tendency under the rules we have, and that's our seed corn," he said. "All these young, technically-adept folks, we're going to lose them. The people who get to stay are going to retire, and there's nothing to backfill them. It's something we've got to watch closely."

Cogan Schneier is an intern for Federal News Radio.

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