Members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit practice a mass casualty scenario aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., in December. An expert said pre-deployment training is just one of the areas that might suffer, impacting military readiness, if the Defense Department loses 10 percent of its budget in March due to sequestration. (Cpl. Michael Locket / Marine Corps)
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The Defense Department is preparing to ground military aircraft and call ships back to port should the Pentagon get hit with nearly $50 billion in budget cuts in March.
Senior defense officials appear to be losing hope that congressional leaders and the White House will be able to come up with a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan before the spending cuts are enacted.
"[W]e have no idea what the hell's going to happen," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during a briefing at the Pentagon on Thursday. "All told, this uncertainty, if left unresolved by the Congress, will seriously harm our military readiness."
Ashton Carter, deputy defense secretary, instructed military officials on Thursday to exempt military personnel funding from sequestration reductions, protect Wounded Warrior programs, reduce civilian workforce costs through hiring freezes or furloughs and protect family programs to the extent possible.
One expert said he doubts the Defense Department will avoid the 10 percent cut to its budget and that pushing the deadline to March 1 could do even more harm.
"This delay was not a victory," said Steven Bucci with The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "I was pretty gloomy about it before Christmas; now I'm nearly certain it'll hit."
Since Congress passed the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, there's nothing to leverage against Defense Department cuts, Bucci said. So now he said he fears the military will be "thrown under the bus."
Bucci, a retired Army colonel who served as military assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, said he's been through two military drawdowns — and they've never gone well. He said the Marine Corps should prepare for tough times.
Here are five things every Marine should know about how sequestration could wreak havoc on the Corps:
• Training. Marines should get ready for more physical training, ground marches and other free activities around base, Bucci said. Less money means cutting expensive training materials like fuel or ammunition, which translates to less time on the shooting range and other places.
"Marksmanship is a huge pride of the Marine Corps," he said. "Marines shoot better than everybody else, and that doesn't happen by accident. They shoot a lot."
• Readiness. Predeployment workups are expensive, but critical for training Marines for their missions, Bucci said. Training young infantrymen for a Marine Expeditionary Unit deployment involves major costs, the biggest being fuel.
"They're just not going to be trained to the degree I know the leadership of the Marine Corps prides themselves on before a mission," he said.
• Equipment. Marines went into the post-9/11 conflicts with worn-out equipment, but a lot was done to rectify that. A return to that type of overly frugal atmosphere would not be a positive development, Bucci said.
"Marines are about as good as you get in the military at operating on a shoestring," he added. "We shouldn't take advantage by sending them places without the stuff they need."
• Deployments. Bucci said he doubts the number of missions Marines conduct around the world will go down, but he is concerned about how they'll carry them out with fewer resources.
"When equipment is not as good as it should be, the cost is usually paid in blood, not dollars."
• Morale. Doing more with less is tough on just about any organization, so drawing down while facing civilian employee furloughs will add pressure. Asking Marines to handle those responsibilities will detract from their primary role as warriors, he said, and that blunts the Corps' ability to serve as the tip of the spear.