STUTTGART, Germany — Less than three days before sequestration is set to take effect, military officials cannot say what exactly it will mean for the military community overseas and the missions it executes.
Yet one thing appears to be certain: Big changes are on the way for servicemembers and civilians alike if $50 billion in automatic defense spending cuts go into effect Friday.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has already said most of the department’s 800,000 civilians face furloughs of up to 22 days, beginning in mid-April through the end of the fiscal year in September.
Beyond furloughs, the trickle down of sequester will ripple across overseas installations stretching from Japan to Germany. The consequences of sequestration are expected to be wide-ranging, potentially touching everything from community service programs and lines at the commissary to the possibility of shortened school weeks.
It’s a case of simple math, officials said.
“We cannot get our job done long term without civilian employees who propel much of our mission,” said Col. Ed Thomas, U.S. European Command spokesman. “You can extrapolate that any activity that relies on DOD civilian manpower will somehow have to make adjustments downward at about 20 percent.”
U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa are prepared to implement the cuts scheduled to go into effect March 1, if necessary, but “it won’t be easy,” Gen. Philip Breedlove, USAFE and AFA commander wrote in a commentary posted on USAFE’s website Monday.
Breedlove said the cuts would affect some training, maintenance and travel.
“Across the command, we are looking at deferring training opportunities and much needed maintenance on everything from our aircraft to our buildings,” he said. “Our biggest challenge will be paying the bills generated from current and potential future operations on the two continents we support.”
Breedlove said the command has “curtailed the amount of travel we do to accomplish the mission and developed more efficient ways to provide base services,” though, for the latter, he didn’t specify how.
In the case of the Army, special effort will be made to minimize the effect sequestration has on missions in two major hot spots: Afghanistan and South Korea, Army Chief Gen. Raymond Odierno said during a congressional hearing on Tuesday. Still, the 61,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and 91,000 other soldiers stationed overseas will feel the consequences should sequestration take effect, Odierno said.
“It is these solders who will suffer the very most under these budget cuts,” Odierno said during the House Committee on Appropriations hearing, where all service chiefs testified Tuesday on the fiscal challenges facing the defense department.
Across the Army, everything from day care and family counseling services to tuition assistance programs are at risk, Odierno said.
Officials at U.S. Army Europe are trying to assess the consequences of sequestration on training missions with allies, a primary focus for the command. In the coming weeks, USAREUR’s commander, Lt. Gen. Donald Campbell, will issue new training and budgetary guidance, USAREUR said.
Continued military training with NATO allies and other partner nations is seen as vital in ensuring that the capabilities and readiness achieved by the U.S.-led international coalition in Afghanistan are not lost after the alliance ends its combat role at the end of 2014.
While sequestration is not expected to affect Army permanent-change-of-station moves for active-duty personnel, some civilian moves to new assignments could be delayed amid all the budgetary uncertainty. In particular, the expiration on March 27 of the continuing resolution, which is funding the federal government in the absence of a budget, could complicate plans for civilian personnel moves.
“At present, no funded civilian PCS moves have been placed on hold,” USAREUR stated. “However, civilian moves scheduled to take place after 27 March are not currently being funded due to the expiration of the current continuing resolution. We are assessing what the impact will be if sequestered.”
An Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon said sequestration was not expected to affect PCS moves for airmen. The service, she said Monday, was expecting guidance within the next few days on how civilian PCS moves could be affected.
In the European theater, there are roughly 29,000 DOD civilian workers, many of whom work in tandem with the 74,000 uniformed personnel spread out across Europe. Virtually all DOD civilians in Europe will face furloughs, according to EUCOM. Of the 29,000 civilians, some 9,400 of them are Army personnel.
The military’s reliance on civilian workers means active-duty troops will feel the effects of furloughs in their day-to-day lives.
“Everyone in the command will see some reductions in services, maintenance and operation of facilities and other effects,” USAREUR stated.
As military commands brace for the reduced manpower, they are still trying to determine how to best mitigate the impact on employees and the services they provide.
“We’re going back to the garrisons and saying, ‘Tell us what is critical,’ ” said Dan Thompson, a spokesman for Installation Management Command-Europe. “Every garrison is a bit different. Some things may be critical at Graf (Grafenwöhr) but not at Wiesbaden.”
Thompson said the commands would reallocate resources to critical services where possible. IMCOM provides base family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs and much of the daily operations on base — from maintenance and auto licensing to child care and youth, alcohol and sexual assault counselors.
At Ramstein Air Base near Kaiserslautern, base officials said Tuesday that it was still too early to determine how sequestration might affect base operations. But they said there are currently no plans to limit child development center hours, curtail youth instructional programs or other family support programs.
Postal workers, commissary employees and librarians in Heidelberg said Tuesday that they’d heard nothing from their bosses about plans to deal with the budget cuts, which could cut their pay and reduce services.
The Defense Commissary Agency on Monday directed all queries to the Defense Department.
At military-funded schools overseas, educators and students are facing consequences in the face of budget cuts. Those including a possible four-day week or a shortened school year. Though Department of Defense Education Activity leadership has remained silent on how changes would be implemented, its director, Marilee Fitzgerald, stated in a January memo that spring sports would be unaffected by the sequester.
While furloughs mean cuts to civilian workers’ base pay, other allowances that overseas workers receive, such as living quarters allowance, will remain in place, according to EUCOM and USAREUR officials. Regulations prohibit local national workers from being furloughed.
Thompson said some civilians have been asking whether they could take their furlough days consecutively in a sort of unpaid vacation. Those decisions would be made based on “the needs of the Army,” Thompson said.
Thomas, the EUCOM spokesman, said his command will keep workers updated as information becomes available.
“We are still waiting on details from DOD. We are standing by for more information and when we get it, we will be pushing that info out,” Thomas said. “The department is working to take a standardized approach across DOD, but there will be some latitude left for the services.”
Reporters Matt Millham, Nancy Montgomery, Jennifer Svan and John Vandiver contributed to this report.