By CNN Staff
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered the military to begin implementing cost-cutting measures aimed at mitigating the risk of significant budget cuts should Congress fail to reach a deal in coming months to avert or soften them.
"We have no idea what the hell is going to happen," Panetta said Thursday.
He has asked services to begin "prudent" measures, including curtailing maintenance for non-critical activities and delaying hiring.
The measures must be "reversible" and minimize harmful impacts on military readiness, Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon.
Military departments have also been told to report on how they would implement deep automatic spending cuts, called sequester, and enforce unpaid leave for civilian employees should the reductions occur.
Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey have warned Congress that uncertainty over the absence of a long-term spending agreement, debt-ceiling concerns and the lack of a full congressional budget process is extremely harmful.
While the fiscal cliff compromise in early January in Congress put off the sequester, the issue is coming around again in February and March and lawmakers and the White House are bracing for another bruising political fight.
Panetta, who in the past has said nearly $500 billion in mandatory defense cuts over 10 years under sequestration would be a "meat ax" approach to budget-cutting and would "hollow out the force," took a different spin in a memo in late December.
Panetta wrote in the memo to troops and civilians in the Defense Department that overall funding for the fiscal year ending in September would be reduced, but sequestration would not necessarily mean immediate spending reductions.
He tried to reassure troops that President Barack Obama "indicated his intent to exercise his legal authority to exempt military personnel" from the cuts.
But the same promise couldn't be made to the Defense Department's civilian employees. Instead Panetta said the agency may "have to consider" furloughs should it have to operate under reduced funding levels for "an extended period of time."