With sequestration now due to begin on March 1, the Pentagon will be five months into the fiscal year when it has to cut spending, meaning the trims will have to come from seven months of spending rather than a full year, increasing the impact.
Pentagon officials have begun searching for ways to preserve funding for critical programs and activities.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has directed the military services to prioritize funding for the Afghanistan war, training for troops headed to the war zone, treatment of the wounded and preservation of family programs. He also asked them, where possible, to protect funding for the new U.S. military strategy, which calls for greater focus on the Asia-Pacific.
How much space the services have to protect those priorities is unclear. Under sequestration, the Pentagon is required to reduce spending by $46 billion in the final seven months of fiscal year 2013 by cutting an equal percentage from most programs and activities.
Obama exempted military personnel from the cuts, as permitted under the Budget Control Act. But that decision increases the percentage that must be cut from the other accounts. Officials estimate the cut will be about 9 percent.
The Pentagon has some flexibility on Afghanistan war funding as well. In practice, money for the war is treated as part of the department’s operations and maintenance account. Officials have said they will offset cuts to war spending by delaying less-pressing maintenance and other activity funded from the account.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimated earlier this month that funding for Afghanistan and general operations and maintenance would be about $263 billion. The cut from the two accounts required by sequester would be about $22.4 billion.