To prepare for “this extraordinary budget uncertainty that we’re confronting, the leadership of this department has decided that it must begin to take steps in the coming weeks that would reduce the potential damage that we would face should Congress fail to act to prevent the cuts,” Mr. Panetta said.

Specific steps were outlined in a memo distributed across the military and civilian departments and signed by Ashton Carter, the deputy defense secretary, and included curtailing nonessential travel, training and conferences.