Pentagon Won't Feel Most Of Sequester's Effects Until Summer

Across-the-board spending cuts are set to go into effect on Friday. But the sequestration will be more like a long slope than a cliff. Pentagon officials don't expect serious cuts — like furloughs and lost flying time — to kick in for at least two months.

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$46 billion: That's the amount the Pentagon must cut from its budget by the end of September under the new regime of austerity that kicks in today. This afternoon, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned about the impact of that.

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: Let me make it clear that this uncertainty puts at risk our ability to effectively fulfill all of our missions.

CORNISH: But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, military leaders say most effects won't be felt immediately.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Some Pentagon leaders are privately comparing the budget cuts to an avalanche. It could smash everything in its path, but it starts slowly.

MAJOR GENERAL KAREN DYSON: There's not going to be a huge catastrophic event that's going to occur.

BOWMAN: Not in the first days, at least, according to Major General Karen Dyson. She's the Army's budget director.

DYSON: It really sort of manifests itself over time.

BOWMAN: So while General Dyson and her counterparts in the Navy and the Air Force are deciding now what and where to cut, the effects won't be felt until well into the spring. The Army will postpone combat training within the next two months for some units at its desert base in California's Mojave Desert.

The Navy will cut back on training carrier pilots. Officials say that means by April, at least one East Coast wing of some 80 aircraft will be cut back to a bare minimum. Here's Admiral Jonathan Greenert - he's the Navy's top officer - speaking before Congress recently.

ADMIRAL JONATHAN GREENERT: In the near term, we will not be able to respond in the way the nation has expected and depended on us, and it just continues to grow and cascade as we go through the summer.

BOWMAN: The Air Force says that it will run out of money for flying by late spring or summer, but still will be able to maintain critical missions - Afghanistan, homeland defense. The same for the Army. The cuts won't affect combat operations in Afghanistan, but it will hit units on the homefront. Again, General Dyson.

DYSON: If we had no relief at all in our budget, we would be running out of money over the summer.

BOWMAN: Defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon says he's not too concerned about pilots or troops not getting training at home.

DR. MICHAEL O'HANLON: Because the ones who are deployed near or in Afghanistan or supporting that operation will have their funds and their money, and the troops in Afghanistan will have theirs.

BOWMAN: There's another complicating factor to all this - another deadline, March 27. That's when the deal that funds the government at 2012 spending levels comes to an end. The White House and the Congress will have to come up with a new budget plan. The problem for the Pentagon is its bill for 2013 will be higher than they were in 2012. The war in Afghanistan cost more than expected - General Dyson says billions more.

DYSON: What we're seeing in the execution and the war fight is emerging bills that we need to cover.

BOWMAN: So if Congress and the White House keep funding the government at 2012 levels, things such as training and maintenance could be cut even more. What's not getting cut right away are the big tickets: ships and warplanes. They're paid for years in advance. And since sequester savings are needed now, cutting a jet fighter years from now doesn't help much. Loren Thompson is a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute.

DR. LOREN THOMPSON: That means the impact in the first or the second year from sequestration will only gradually be felt.

BOWMAN: The second year of sequestration. Congress and the White House may have worked things out by then. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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