Pentagon preparing for drastic cuts: The uncertainty is the "biggest national security threat"...

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The Pentagon will begin taking steps to freeze civilian hiring, delay some contract awards and curtail some maintenance to prepare for drastic budget cuts if Congress can't reach an agreement on a final spending plan, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.

Speaking to reporters, Panetta said that department officials must also develop detailed plans to implement unpaid furloughs for civilian personnel. The furloughs would kick in if the automatic cuts are triggered.

But Panetta said he has asked defense leaders to ensure that any initial moves they make now should be reversible if at all possible, and they must minimize harmful effects on military readiness.

"The simple fact is that this fiscal uncertainty has become a serious threat to our national security," Panetta said during a Pentagon press conference. "We really have no choice but to prepare for the worst."

The Pentagon is facing a spending reduction of nearly $500 billion over a decade. An additional $110 billion in automatic spending cuts to military and domestic programs will take effect in early March if no agreement is reached.

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