Automatic Budget Cuts Still Loom Over Defense Dept.

Republicans continue to press the Obama administration for more details on how they would cut billions from the defense budget if sequestration is put into place in January. The Department of Defense will now have to explain why it has not planned for an event that is becoming increasingly likely.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Time is running out to fix what has been called the biggest threat to national security. That's the threat of automatic budget cuts that would slice 10 percent of military spending. Republicans in Congress want to know how the military would respond if those cuts kicked in, which could happen in January. But Pentagon planners insist they just don't know. NPR's Larry Abramson has our story.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon says the only way to get Congress to stop across-the-board military cuts is to lay out just what those cuts would do. He backed a law requiring the administration to spell out just which defense programs would be hit. But McKeon says the White House report issued last week said nothing.

REPRESENTATIVE BUCK MCKEON: Not only was the report late, but the report submitted to Congress merely paid lip-service to the dire national security implications of these cuts.

ABRAMSON: That report just showed the dollar amount that would have to be taken from each of hundreds of accounts. It didn't say we would stop buying these jets, or we would fire this many civilian workers. At a congressional hearing today, top Defense officials continued to hold back on details saying they're hoping never to have to make those decisions. Members of the House Armed Services Committee pushed hard. What about contracts already in the pipeline? The Pentagon said today those contracts will never be touched. But General Larry Spencer, vice chief of staff of the Air Force, seemed to qualify that. He says he would have to reexamine one of the Pentagon's top priorities: purchasing KC-46 refueling tankers from Boeing.

GENERAL LARRY SPENCER: Because we have a firm, fixed price contract. We would have to open up that contract. And so we would have to then talk with the contractor about revising our payment schedule. And I would guess the contractor would then talk to us about, OK, well, we can't give you as many airplanes on the schedule as you asked for.

ABRAMSON: Buying fewer planes would be one way to save money, but Boeing might just raise the price for each plane. Aerospace manufacturers issued another report today estimating sequestration could cause millions of lost jobs, especially among small businesses. But with the Pentagon refusing to explain how it will implement these cuts, it's very hard to test whether industry fears are just hype.

Another big unknown is health care, a growing part of the military budget. Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale says he has to keep providing services under TRICARE, the military's healthcare system.

ROBERT HALE: So I think we would be faced, to some extent, with not being able to pay all of our TRICARE bills, probably right at the end of fiscal '13. We'd try to avoid it, but I think it would happen. I'm not quite sure what our providers would do in that case.

ABRAMSON: Some providers might decide to get out of TRICARE if they're not getting paid in full. Of course, it's in the Pentagon's interest to portray these cuts as catastrophic. Many critics of Defense spending say that after a decade of war, the Pentagon needs serious downsizing. Either way, all of this uncertainty is reaching troops in the field. Admiral Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations, says on a recent tour he got an earful about budget cuts.

ADMIRAL MARK FERGUSON: At every forum sailors from the most junior to our operational commanders expressed concern regarding what sequestration will mean to our navy and their service.

ABRAMSON: Of course, Congress could fix all of this with a new budget agreement. But as they head home to campaign, lawmakers are ensuring that the uncertainties of these cuts will be left to a lame duck Congress. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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