Implementing $600 billion in sequestered defense cuts next year would be the equivalent of a government shutdown for the Pentagon, the chief of naval operations warned a Senate panel on Wednesday.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert said the massive planning and preparation needed to implement the cuts would tie up service and department personnel for months and could essentially bring U.S. military operations to a halt.
“We would have our people distracted for months” working on a plan to execute sequestration, Greenert said of the potential impact of sequestration.
That distraction would force the military to put essentially everything on the back burner, Navy spokesman Cmdr. Danny Hernandez explained. “It is going to be very manpower-intensive … that means you are going to have to get a lot of horsepower” behind it, he said.
As a result, planned military exercises would likely be suspended, as well as ongoing work to buy new weapon systems or repair older ones, according to Hernandez.
“The tempo is going to go up very high, and we are going to have to do this [sequester plan] rather than what we are normally doing, which is training and equipping U.S. forces,” he said.
The Pentagon is facing the possible cuts because of the failure of a supercommittee of lawmakers to agree to a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction plan.
Under legislation that lifted the debt ceiling last year, the supercommittee’s failure triggered $1.2 trillion in cuts to the federal budget that are to be implemented starting in 2013.
The Pentagon was already facing budget cuts. Its $525.4 billion budget request for fiscal 2013, sent to Capitol Hill last month, included measures to pay for over half — or $260 billion — of the $450 billion cut called for in last July’s Budget Control Act. The rest of those cuts will be parsed out over the rest of the decade.
If the cuts from sequestration were also implemented, the Pentagon would have to reduce its budget by more than $1 trillion over the next 10 years.
One top defense lawmaker warned the delays stemming from sequestration could last for a very long time.
“My concern is a whole lot of things will shut down while people bury their heads in the sand and not facing up to what the real problems are,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said.
The looming budget cuts under sequestration, if enacted, would force the Department of Defense to renegotiate all its current contracts — from procurement to services — to meet the cost-reduction goals.
“How long do you think that will take?” McKeon asked, noting that it took just over a decade to get a deal done for the Air Force’s aerial tanker. “It’s going to take a long, long time,” he said.
The department, led by Secretary Leon Panetta, insisted it is not drafting plans to prepare for the sequester, a point Greenert reiterated to reporters after the hearing.
However, “the mechanics of going into each and every [service] account … you have to prepare to do that,” Greenert said. “That takes a lot of people doing something different than what they are doing today, including our sailors, and that is my concern.”
Hernandez could not comment as to how long current operations could be suspended as a result of sequester planning, but he did say the responsibility for preventing the scenario falls squarely on lawmakers’ shoulders.
“Just like a government shutdown, [Congress] can prevent this,” Hernandez said.
This story was originally posted at 2 p.m. and was last updated at 8:20 p.m.