Evan Vucci/AP

Panetta orders civilian hiring freeze, contract delays

Other ‘prudent measures’ to prepare for sequestration include more detailed planning for unpaid furloughs.

The Pentagon will begin to take “prudent measures” in the coming weeks to prepare for a possible perfect storm of budget cuts, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during a press briefing Thursday.

Those precautions include a civilian hiring freeze, delaying some contract awards and trimming non-essential facilities maintenance, he said. In addition, Defense Department components must start more detailed planning for the across-the-board budget cuts that are now scheduled to hit March 1 if Congress does not reach a deal on spending reductions.  

The more specific sequestration strategies should include plans to implement unpaid furloughs of civilian workers, Panetta added. “I want to be clear: It’s precautionary,” he said. “But I have an obligation to – to let Congress know that we may have to do that, and I very much hope that we will not have to furlough anyone.”

The Defense chief thanked lawmakers for delaying sequestration, but noted that the new March 1 deadline is less than 50 days away. The department also is operating under a continuing resolution that expires on March 27, and there is a possibility lawmakers will end up extending that for the rest of the fiscal  year, Panetta added. The budget situation could further deteriorate if Congress fails to address the debt ceiling.

“The fact is, looking at all three of those, we have no idea what the hell's going to happen,” Panetta said. “All told, this uncertainty, if left unresolved by the Congress, will seriously harm our military readiness.”

In the worst case scenario, the total cuts could amount to a 19 percent to 20 percent reduction in base budget operating dollars for active units, he said.  

The measures the Pentagon is taking now will help mitigate the damage, but the impact still will be severe, he cautioned.

“The simple fact is that this fiscal uncertainty has become a very serious threat to our national security,” Panetta said. "And like any grave threat that we face, the American people expect and deserve action.  Congress must pass a balanced deficit reduction plan, de-trigger sequester, and pass the appropriations bills for fiscal 2013.”