* 11 days of unpaid leave from July 8 to end of September
* Furloughs below previous Pentagon estimates
* Hagel refuses to rule out more furloughs next year
By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON, May 14 The Pentagon told its
civilian workforce on Tuesday that it will put most of them on
unpaid leave for one day a week starting in July, a deeply
unpopular move that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel blamed on
sweeping budget cuts imposed by Congress.
The U.S. defense budget has taken the single biggest hit
from automatic spending cuts, known in Washington as the
"sequester," and Hagel said he had tried to spare civilians the
financial hardship ahead by first cutting elsewhere.
"We did everything we could not to get to this day, this
way," Hagel told an audience of Defense Department employees.
"But that's it. That's where we are ... And I'm sorry about
For those of the more than 600,000 civilian defense
employees affected, the decision translates to a salary cut of
roughly 20 percent during the furlough period - which runs from
July 8 until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
Although the total will vary, most civilian employees will
be on unpaid leave for 11 days, shorter than the earlier
Pentagon estimates of 14 days issued in March and 22 days in
But many civilians had hoped Hagel would find other ways to
cut the budget or allow individual branches of the military to
shield the civilian employees entirely. The move is expected to
save $1.8 billion.
Although civilians will be able to challenge their
furloughs, personal issues like financial hardship will not be
taken into account, one U.S. defense official said.
Only vital missions are being protected. A second U.S.
defense official, briefing reporters, said more than 120,000
civilian employees would be exempted from furloughs, including
employees stationed in combat zones and medical personnel.
Employees in Navy shipyards are also being exempted because
of fear their absence would delay maintenance of nuclear ships,
according to an attachment to a memo by Hagel to Pentagon
leaders released to reporters.
"No one service, no one's going to be protected more than
anybody else," Hagel said.
MORE FURLOUGHS NEXT YEAR?
The mandatory budget cuts - which were included in a 2011
law aimed at reducing the federal government's wide deficits -
took effect on March 1 and total $109 billion through Sept. 30,
including a $46 billion reduction in defense spending.
The cuts will deepen in the coming years unless Congress
acts to reverse them.
Indeed, Hagel offered faint hope to Pentagon employees that
the situation will improve in the 2014 fiscal year, when the
sequester will impose an additional $52 billion in cuts to
projected Defense Department spending.
"I can't guarantee you that we're not going to be in some
kind of a similar situation next year," Hagel said, asked by one
employee for any assurance more furloughs were not on their way.
There was limited reaction from Congress, with concerned
lawmakers - including those representing military-heavy
districts - calling for a need to free the Defense Department
from the automatic cuts.
But it was unclear whether the furloughs would create any
additional momentum in Congress, where gridlock has thwarted
compromise on budget by Democrats and Republicans.
U.S. military leaders have warned the cuts will erode the
military's readiness to respond in the future to global tensions
- sobering words as the Pentagon weighs threats from North
Korea, advances in Iran's nuclear program and the fallout from
Syria's civil war.
Hagel noted steps the Pentagon has already taken to slash
costs, including the Air Force cutting flying time and the Navy
and Marine Corps scaling back training and deployments. The Navy
decided, for example, to reduce the presence of U.S. aircraft
carriers in the Gulf from two carriers to one.
"Even after taking all these actions, we are still short of
needed operating funds," Hagel said in his memo.
The next steps for the Pentagon are unclear. Last month,
Hagel said in a major policy speech that he had ordered a review
that could lead to additional belt-tightening measures such as
reducing the number of generals, paring back the civilian
workforce and moving to stem spiraling costs of new weapons.
The Pentagon is also urging Congress to move forward with a
new round of military base closures. Closing domestic military
bases is deeply unpopular with lawmakers due to the damage such
cutbacks can cause to local economies.