WASHINGTON: “I am fully expecting to see sequestration in some form beginning in January,” Rep. Randy Forbes told Breaking Defense in an exclusive interview. And those automatic cuts — or even the more targeted cuts likely in any deal to avoid a sequester — would undermine the nation’s new Pacific-focused strategy and the military’s AirSea Battle concept to win future ocean wars, said Forbes, who chairs the readiness panel of the House Armed Services Committee.

Congress could strike a deal in 2013 to stop the sequestration cuts before they take full effect — presumably as part of a larger deal on the “fiscal cliff” to raise the debt ceiling and extend Bush-era tax cuts — but “I think it will be sometime early spring before we see that,” Forbes sighed. “It’s going to be very, very difficult to reach that deal before January.”

“Now hope springs eternal, Sydney, so obviously I hope something will be reached,” Forbes went on. “There’s just no indicators [anywhere] that I’ve seen that would indicate that such a deal is percolating right now.”

Many Democrats believe they can get a better deal in 2013 — something Sen. Patty Murray said publicly way back in July — and they argue that the world won’t end if sequestration takes effect on January 2nd. They may have a point, up to a point.

“Every day that goes by we’re getting closer, [but] this is not like a government shutdown, it’s not really like a cliff,” said Todd Harrison the leading sequestration expert at the influential Center for Strategic and Policy Assessments speaking at CSBA’s rollout of a new study on smarter ways to cut the budget. Sequestration is too complex to execute immediately on Jan. 2nd, especially since the administration has resolutely refused to plan ahead for how to execute required cuts.

“It’s going to be weeks if not months before we see actual implementation, [and] that’ll give Congress time to come back and turn it off,” Harrison told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “[Even] once it actually goes into effect not all of the effects are going to be felt right away — [but] just wait.”

The general outlines of a grand bargain to prevent or roll back sequestration are already fairly widely accepted: Democrats accept cuts to non-defense spending, probably including entitlements, while Republicans accept defense spending and revenue increases, albeit preferably through eliminating loopholes and deductions rather than raising marginal tax rates.

But vague general agreement is hardly enough, warned Forbes. “The key is when you get people who are in leadership seriously sitting around the table and making tradeoffs,” he told Breaking Defense. “That hasn’t happened yet, and not only has it not happened yet, there’s no signal that it’s about to happen.”

The congressman spoke to Breaking Defense in a sidebar conversation yesterday during the conservative Foreign Policy Initiative’s annual forum, where Forbes moderated a panel on Asia-Pacific strategy. Just hours later, at the same conference, Sen. Kelly Ayotte spoke to reporters, and while most of that roundtable discussion was dominated by the political fallout over the Benghazi terrorist attack, Ayotte also discussed the sequester. The rising Republican Senate star did sound a marginally more optimistic note than Forbes on whether it was still possible to forestall sequestration.

“I have to say I think it’s too soon to tell, which is kind of shocking because we really don’t have a lot of time and we should be working this out right now,” Ayotte said in response to a question from Breaking Defense. The Senate floor is filled with business unrelated to sequestration, she said bemusedly: “I am not hearing a lot about a resolution.” And while Republican leaders have agreed — in principle — to some kind of revenue increases, Ayotte said, “I haven’t heard anything in return from the other side saying we’re willing to do entitlement reform.”

Forbes, by contrast, felt vindicated in his long-standing gloom: “I’ve said this for well over a year now — that, if we weren’t able to force a deal through before the election, that getting a deal between the election and the first part of January would be incredibly difficult.”

If budget cuts do occur, whether under sequestration or a last-minute deal to avoid it, Forbes is fearful that America’s position in the Pacific will suffer, especially versus a rapidly arming China. Even without further cuts, the current five-year budget plan is inadequate “across the board,” Forbes said, but in particular, “we need a lot more ships” — an issue he and Ayotte have pushed hard on together.

“The AirSea Battle concept is a vitally important component to US leadership in that region,” Forbes said of the joint Air Force and Navy concept for long-range warfare against a future high-tech foe like China. “[But] are we going to have the resources to do that AirSea concept and provide the kind of pivot that the administration is talking about? I think it’s very questionable that we will,” he said, even under current budgets. That’s especially true since rising tensions with Iran have stretched naval forces thin. “Then you look at sequestration looming on the horizon,” he said, “[and] I think all bets are off the table.”

Forbes emphasized that he, Ayotte, and other Navy boosters don’t want to buy ships blindly. “What we are proposing is, first we set down and do that analysis, how many ships we really need, not just how many we want to buy, and then we say okay how can we afford to build these ships,” he said. “The administration seems to not be inclined to do that kind of analysis.”

People always say strategy should drive budgets, not the other way around, but that very rarely happens. The same day as Breaking Defense spoke to Forbes and Ayotte, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments rolled out the results of a “strategic choices” wargame it had done over the summer. Seven teams of 10 or more military officers, congressional staffers, and thinktank experts were given a CSBA database of over 600 potential budget cuts and additions, then challenged to plan an affordable course for the next decade — an experiment which had some surprising results.

“The cuts we gave them are on the order of what sequestration would require over the next decade; unlike sequestration we gave them flexibility,” CSBA’s Harrison explained to reporters. The cuts were also phased in gradually starting in 2014, instead of the sudden drop in spending that a sequester would impose in 2013. While the size and timing of cuts in the CSBA exercise were hypothetical, they line up with a likely deal to avoid sequestration and, for that matter, with the historical patterns of defense drawdowns over the past 60 years.

“The fiscal guidance here is the forcing function, but they had to start by thinking about their strategy for the long term,” Harrison said. To be able to execute AirSea Battle — which CSBA helped develop — and the Pacific strategy, he argued, simply executing the Pentagon’s current program of record is not enough: “We actually need different capabilities.”

Despite the diversity among the seven teams, participants from both parties and all four armed services reached some unexpected points of consensus. CSBA has strongly criticized the troubled tri-service F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as too short-ranged for modern warfare, especially over the vast Pacific. In the exercise, “all teams cut F-35 procurement over the next 10 years,” said co-author Mark Gunzinger. “One team cancelled the F-35 outright.”

All the teams cut Army and Marine Corps ground forces, as well as the Defense Department’s civilian workforce, while protecting or even increasing Special Operations, long-range bombers, cyber warfare, and submarines. Most surprisingly, and after much debate, five of seven teams also cut, in some cases by up to 15 percent, the readiness accounts that fund military training and operations — funds which top brass have publicly declared off-limits. The logic, Gunzinger said, was “we can take some risk in the near term by reducing readiness to increase future readiness” through developing and buying new technology.

Military leaders testifying before Forbes’s subcommittee on readiness, among other places, have testified that such a tradeoff would lead to a “hollow force,” superficially large and well-equipped but without the training or supplies to fight effectively. And Forbes himself rejected the CSBA exercise’s fundamental assumption that any additional investments in defense capabilities — say, more ships — must be balanced by cuts elsewhere in the Pentagon budget.

“I’m not one who would concede that,” Forbes told Breaking Defense, “so before I would say ‘what else are we going to cut out of national defense’…. I’d like to see us reverse our planning process and go back to asking the question of, ‘if we don’t supply these resources, what’s the threat and risk to the United States of America?’”

Edited at 7:30 pm to clarify size of readiness cuts in CSBA study.