Only nine days remain before the so-called supercommittee (Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction) is required to come up with a legislative proposal to cut the deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years.  If it fails to reach an agreement by November 23, or if Congress does not pass its recommended legislation, the Budget Control Act of 2011 requires $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts (sequestration) from discretionary program spending (funded in appropriations acts) through 2021.  If triggered, these automatic cuts would begin in 2013, with half coming from security budgets.

The supercommittee has been working for the past three months to come up with an agreement that would stave off sequestration.  Speculation in the press about its ability to reach a consensus agreement changes constantly; optimism yielding to pessimism and back again, sometimes all in a single day.  Congressional leaders, presidential candidates, and budget “experts” have provided advice, floated trial plans, and otherwise tried to pressure the committee as it held open hearings and met behind closed doors.

Defense and non-defense cabinet officers have also applied a steady drumbeat of warnings about the dire effects on federal agency budgets from sequestration, with potential defense cuts receiving the most visible attention. 

Secretary Panetta has said that DoD, under direction from the president, is planning $450 billion in reductions over 10 years.  He says this plan will be implemented ”in a way that will protect the best military for the future, in a way that will protect our core security interests in the future.”  But, he warns any additional cuts would cause severe difficulties in defense planning and increase risk. 

More over, if the pentagon were forced to make $500 to $600 billion in automatic cuts, the results would be  “devastating to the defense budget,” Panetta warns.  He calls sequestration a “doomsday mechanism” that would be like “shooting ourselves in the head.”    Panetta told the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) this week that sequestration “would do catastrophic damage to our military, hollowing out the force and degrading its ability to protect the country.”

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the military chiefs have joined the secretary in articulating the national security risks at stake if automatic cuts are implemented.  GEN Martin Dempsey, chairman the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), testifying with Secretary Panetta before the HASC, told members that “indiscriminate, across the board cuts [caused by sequestration] would wreak havoc on our plans and programs.”  He said that DoD and the Congress must “avoid self-inflicted wounds to our nation’s security.”

Testifying before the HASC earlier this month, the military chiefs warned of disastrous effects on the nation’s defense capabilities from automatic cuts.  GEN Raymond Odierno, Army Chief of Staff, said “sequestration would cause significant reductions in both Active and Reserve Component end strengths, impact the industrial base, and almost eliminate our modernization programs.”  Chief of Naval Operations ADM Jonathan Greenert warned that action required by sequestration could force the Navy to “end procurement programs and begin laying off civilian personnel in fiscal year 2012 to ensure we are within control levels for January of 2013.” 

GEN James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, cautioned that implementing automatic cuts will result in a Marine Corps that “will not be able to do the things the Nation needs us to do to mitigate risk, or to meet the requirements of the Combatant Commanders.”  Air Force Chief of Staff GEN Norton Schwartz told the committee that sequestration “would slash our investment accounts; raid our operations and maintenance accounts, forcing the curtailment of important daily operations and sustainment efforts; and inflict real damage to the effectiveness and well-being of our Airmen and their families.”

The supercommittee is entering the last week of its deliberations.  There is little time left for maneuvering.  Decision time has arrived. 

The question now is this:  Does the prospect of an across-the-board $1.2 trillion sequester, with $500 to $600 billion to come from defense budgets, make it too painful for the supercommittee to fail?  Will the threat of a “doomsday mechanism,” as Panetta describes it,  force Congress to overcome its divisiveness and produce a plan for deficit reduction in a bold, but responsible way?  We will know by Thanksgiving.