FORT LAUDERDALE: As automatic cuts to the 2013 budget look increasingly unavoidable, with the deadline for a Congressional deal only a week away, Army leaders are preparing fallback positions to defend the service from a full decade of sequester cuts. That includes new guidance on cutting modernization and planning for potential cuts to personnel and combat brigades.

“Sequestration is not just FY ’13,” said Lt. Gen. James Barclay, the deputy chief of staff for resources (G-8) on the Army staff, in remarks to the Association of the US Army’s winter conference. “We have nine more years of sequestration facing us unless the act is changed.”

The Balanced Budget Act of 2011 called for a trillion in federal spending cuts — half from defense, half from discretionary non-defense programs, and effectively zero from entitlements — over a decade. The first year’s cuts would apply automatically and in equal proportions, 8.8 percent, to every Pentagon account except military payroll, which is exempt. For 2014 through 2022, however, Congress and the Administration can allocate the cuts however they want.

Until this year, the Administration resolutely refused to plan for how to implement even the 2013 impacts. President Barack Obama declared during the campaign that sequestration “will not happen.” Now, however, the gridlock looks so intractable and the prospects so bleak that the Army, at least, is preparing to pick and choose which of its babies it has to kill over the next yen years.

“2013 sequestration is across the board, salami-slice, nine percent, [so] we have no flexibility this year,” said Barclay. “’14 and beyond… the Army can then decide where to put those cuts.”

So, Barclay told the assembled officers, officials, and contractors, the service has “a new modernization strategy… looking down the road, knowing that we face the possibility of sequestration for the next nine to ten years.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno approved the strategy last week, and now “it’s in the Secretary’s office for his signature,” said Barclay. The strategic “should be hitting the street here probably in the next week to ten days.”

The strategy lacks details about specific programs, Barclay said: “It’s more in broader terms to give guidance” to the Army and the defense industry. The themes Barclay did outline — especially “staggered modernization” where the Army seeks incremental, affordable upgrades using proven technology rather than spending years trying to develop breakthroughs — were familiar ones.

The Army is also looking seriously at reducing its active duty force structure below the current target of 32 combat brigades and 490,000 personnel, Barclay confirmed.

“We’re running all kind of drills — is 490 it? We have to be honest with ourselves that we’re not sure,” Barclay said. “It kind of depends on the final outcomes of sequestration… and how long does sequestration go.”

So the key takeaway from today’s announcements is not what happens to this program or that, nor to the Army’s number of soldiers and units: None of those decisions has been made. What is worth noting, and what has not been clear before, is that the highest levels of the Army are now bracing for a ten-year war.

“Sequestration is not a one year event, it’s a ten-year event,” Barclay told Breaking Defense as this reporter followed him out of conference hall and down the escalator. “You not only have to get through this year, you have to get through the next nine years of it.”

“Now Congress could change the law,” Barclay emphasized. (Indeed, budget expert Todd Harrison noted the entire crisis is self-inflicted). “They could go back and say no more sequestration. They could stop it this year. But we don’t know that [will happen] — so we do have to start looking to the future if the law stays in effect.”

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