Hagel Makes New Appeal for Reasoned Debate on Defense Spending

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel fired another salvo in Washington's fiscal and political fight over the future of government spending and the role of the U.S. military.

With the Pentagon facing steep budget cuts and Congress deeply divided over spending and taxes, Hagel made yet another appeal to lawmakers to consider the long-term consequences of today's fiscal policies. He also cautioned against letting isolationism drive the nation's national security strategy at a time when new enemies and threats are emerging.

Political gridlock and budget uncertainty threaten to undermine the military and the nation's future, Hagel said Nov. 5 in a keynote speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C.

His remarks echoed themes and guidance that Hagel provided in July when he unveiled a Strategic Choices and Management Review that outlined how the military would live with smaller budgets.

The speech also reflected Hagel's latest insight based on discussions last week with the Joint Chiefs and regional commanders.
Hagel said the Defense Department is prepared to make painful spending cuts and downsize forces for a post-war era. But he insisted that draconian across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration, could leave the military unduly weakened and undermine U.S. leadership and relationships with key allies.

The Pentagon must have sufficient resources to prepare for an uncertain future, said Hagel. “Destructive technologies and weapons that were once the province of advanced militaries are being sought by non-state actors and other nations,” he said. “This will require our continued investment in cutting-edge defensive space and cyber technologies, and capabilities like missile defense.”

Natural disasters, pandemic diseases, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, he said, “all present destabilizing realities to regions and the world. Regional tensions and conflicts in the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, and elsewhere continue to have the potential to erupt into larger-scale conflicts drawing in the U.S., China, or Russia.” Some of the most complex and  threats, said Hagel, remain from non-transparent and heavily armed nation-states like Iran and North Korea. “There is not a short-term solution to these 21st century global threats and problems.”

While these challenges are not America’s responsibility alone, Hagel noted, “They will demand America’s continued global leadership and engagement. No other nation has the will, the power, the capacity, and the network of alliances to lead the international community.”

Hagel said he fears that growing isolationism in the United States will put the nation at risk. “We remain the world’s preeminent military, economic, and diplomatic power. And even as we deal with new budgetary constraints on defense spending, the United States will continue to represent nearly 40 percent of global defense expenditures.”

Without mentioning the Iraq War specifically, Hagel warned about over correcting for past miscalculations. “We have made mistakes. We will continue to make mistakes. But we cannot allow the overhanging threat of future miscalculation and mistakes to paralyze or intimidate our will and necessary decision-making today.”

More Americans, including elected officials, he said, “are growing skeptical about our country’s foreign engagements and responsibilities. But only looking inward is just as deadly a trap as hubris, and we must avoid both in pursuing a successful foreign policy in the 21st century.”

Hagel repeated a call made by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the need for civilian agencies to step up their involvement in foreign policy and exercise “soft power.”

“As we go forward into a historically unpredictable world, we will need to place more of an emphasis on our civilian instruments of power, while adapting our military so that it remains strong,” said Hagel.

The so-called “rebalance” to Asia is an example of the need for interagency collaboration, he said. The  pivot to Asia-Pacific, he noted, requires diplomatic, economic, trade and cultural efforts.

But just as overdependence on the military carries risks, said Hagel, “letting our military strength atrophy would invite disaster.”

Hagel said sequestration cuts will “cause an unnecessary, strategically unsound, and dangerous degradation in military readiness and capability.”

The Defense Department took a $37 billion sequester cut in fiscal year 2013, and will have to absorb a $52 billion sequester cut this fiscal year, unless Congress acts to reverse it.

“DoD cannot responsibly, efficiently, and effectively plan, strategize, and implement national security policies with this cloud of uncertainty continuing to hang over it,” he said. “Congress must act to provide the Department with time and flexibility to implement spending reductions more strategically.”

In preparation for the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, Hagel has identified six priorities for the Pentagon as it adapts to smaller budgets and a shrinking force.

One is institutional reform to reduce overhead costs, including a 20 percent cut to headquarters staffs. Another priority is how the military plans its force designs for the future – the assumptions and scenarios that guide how the military should organize, train, and equip force. These assumptions will be reevaluated, said Hagel.

As budgets come down, he said, “We may have to accept the reality that not every unit will be at maximum readiness, and some kind of a tiered readiness system is perhaps inevitable. This carries the risk that the president would have fewer options to fulfill national security objectives.”

A fourth priority will be protecting investments in space, cyber, special operations forces, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said Hagel. The fifth priority is balance between active and reserve forces, between forward stationed and home-based forces, and between conventional and unconventional war fighting capabilities. “In some cases we will make a shift, for example, by prioritizing a smaller, modern, and capable military over a larger force with older equipment,” said Hagel. “We will also favor a globally active and engaged force over a garrison military. We will look to better leverage the reserve component.”

The sixth priority is personnel and compensation policy, which consumes roughly half of the defense budget and is increasing. Unless actions is taken in this area, Hagel said, “We risk becoming an unbalanced force. One that is well-compensated, but poorly trained and equipped, with limited readiness and capability. … We will have to make hard choices in this area,” he said. “Congress must permit meaningful reforms as they slash the overall budget.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership, DOD Policy, Interagency Issues

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