Panetta warns of hiring freeze, deep cuts at Pentagon
By: Philip Ewing
January 10, 2013 04:14 PM EST
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday he has ordered the Pentagon to begin planning now for a triple crisis facing the government this March, telling reporters it was a “perfect storm” that would leave the military with a worst-case outcome: a “hollow force.”
Panetta and the nation’s top uniformed officer, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, said in a briefing that March’s potential across-the-board budget cuts, the expiration of the continuing spending resolution that now pays for the government and the potential that the U.S. could default on its debt all were too serious not to begin immediate preparations.
“The fact is, looking at all three of those, we have no idea what the hell’s going to happen,” Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon. “All told this uncertainty, if left unresolved by the Congress, will seriously harm our military readiness.”
He said the Pentagon would pull back on military maintenance that wasn’t critical to immediate missions, freeze civilian hiring, stop issuing certain contracts and take “other steps” against the possibility of a roughly $45 billion budget across-the-board spending cut that could take effect in March, unless Congress intervenes.
An even larger cut would have taken place on Jan. 2, but Congress and the White House agreed to postpone it for two months as part of their deal to avert the fiscal cliff.
Congress’s decision to push back that cut, but not to void it altogether, is what has made Panetta and Dempsey pessimistic that lawmakers would be able to resolve March’s triple crisis a timely fashion.
“I’d like to believe that ultimately, Congress will do the right thing,” Panetta said. Now, however, “my fear in talking to members of Congress is that this issue may now be in a very difficult place in terms of their willingness to confront what needs to be done to detrigger sequester. So all those reasons, plus the uncertainty about what happen on the CR, the debt ceiling, put all that together, and we simply cannot sit back now and not be prepared for the worst.”