Warning that a looming trio of budget disasters would hollow the military and devastate readiness, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has asked the Pentagon to begin preparing for one of them — sequestration.

“We really have no choice but to prepare for the worst,” Panetta told reporters during a Jan. 10 news briefing.

Congress has until March 1 to avoid an across-the-board budget penalty that would cut at least $45 billion from the Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 budget. Since Congress did not avert sequestration but simply delayed it by two months, Panetta is taking steps to save money.

In a five-page memo, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter directs Pentagon leaders to curtail facilities maintenance, freeze hiring of civilians and delay contract awards. The document gives the green light to the Pentagon to plan for sequestration.

And as a precaution, the Pentagon also will notify Congress about the potential to implement civilian furloughs, Panetta says.

Panetta, the outgoing defense secretary and veteran of numerous Washington budget wars, says governing used to be “good politics,” but that is no longer the case. “Frankly, my fear in talking to members of Congress is that this issue may now be in a very difficult place in terms of their willingness to confront what needs to be done on sequester,” he says.