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While the Pentagon's military personnel budget accounts are exempt from sequestration, the automatic cuts could force the acceleration of already planned personnel reductions and increase the likelihood that the services have to make some of those cuts involuntary, the services' personnel chiefs said Wednesday.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee's military personnel panel, defense and service personnel officials said decisions on troop strength could be made within 30 to 60 days after sequestration happens.
The Army is the service most likely to make cuts. The Air Force and Marine Corps indicated they may not need to take any extraordinary action, and the Navy said it would have to consider the overall budget situation before deciding.
Sequestration could happen as early as midnight Thursday, but personnel cuts and even the threatened furloughs of 800,000 civilian workers would not happen right away.
Speeding personnel cuts and resorting to involuntary retirements and separations, rather than attrition, to reduce the size of the force would provide only modest relief from the $46 billion cut that the Defense Department faces this year under sequestration, because it would take time to set up a process for selecting those who would leave. Such a move would, however, prepare the services for lower personnel costs in 2014 and beyond.
Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel, said the Army already had pre-sequestration plans for involuntary separations of 24,000 enlisted soldiers and 7,000 officers. It's unclear what might happen if there are even deeper cuts.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., the personnel panel chairman, said he dislikes the idea of cutting personnel levels in the first place. "Increasing fiscal pressure on the military services, especially the Army and Marine Corps, will compel them to move from gradual reductions in manning levels to precipitous declines," he said. "I am also concerned that if the services are compelled to make more significant reductions than now planned, that the use of involuntary separation authorities will become the norm."