Hagel: Congress Needs to Get Real About the Defense Budget

By Sandra I. Erwin

The U.S. armed forces are transitioning from 13 years of war to a future of smaller budgets and unknown challenges. And Congress is just making it all the more difficult, said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Because of actions by Congress that Hagel characterized as "irresponsible," the military is not able to invest in its future and adjust to fiscal reality, he said May 6 at an event co-hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.

Not only did Congress slash the defense budget by voting for automatic sequester cuts, but it is now restricting the Pentagon from taking cost-saving actions that are needed to comply with reduced spending caps, Hagel said.

Hagel's speech comes less than a day after the House Armed Services Committee unveiled its markup of the $521 billion defense bill for fiscal year 2015. The bill specifically bans the Defense Department from carrying out several proposals that would save billions of dollars. This forces the Pentagon to continue to delay "tough choices," Hagel argued, and keeps military modernization efforts in limbo.  

The secretary fired a fresh salvo as the Pentagon remains in a standoff with Congress over the Obama administration's budget proposal, which asks for partial relief from sequester between 2016 and 2019. The president's 2015 budget seeks additional spending of about $26 billion to pay for new weapon systems.

Hagel's main pitch in the speech to a friendly audience in Chicago was the need to keep the U.S. military strong and prepared for unknown contingencies, even as the American public supports greater isolationism. The armed forces, he said, face a "fractured global security landscape, one characterized by great uncertainty, rapid change, new and sophisticated threats, and continued political turbulence."

Although Americans today are "increasingly skeptical of foreign engagement and global responsibilities, it is a mistake to view those responsibilities as a burden or as charity," said Hagel. He insisted that the main beneficiaries of U.S. global leadership and engagement are the American people.

The military can't do this alone, and needs Congress to help smooth the post-war transition, he said. The Defense Department needs to downsize and modernize, and Congress is standing in the way. "We should recognize that military strength is not only defined by the size of our force, but by its agility and how quickly it can be mobilized, and how superior its weapons and technology are compared to our adversaries," said Hagel.

Defense officials had long expected that the military budget would come down after the wars, he said, "But the scale and pace of the budget cuts we’ve experienced in recent years have been made more severe, and more abrupt, because political gridlock in Congress triggered steep automatic cuts ... an irresponsible deferral of governing responsibility."

And even as Congress has slashed the overall budget, it has so far "proven unwilling to accept necessary reforms to curb growth in compensation costs and eliminate excess infrastructure and unneeded facilities," said Hagel.

The 2015 bill unveiled May 5 by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., puts the kibosh on Pentagon proposals to curb the growth of military pay and benefits. It also bans the Defense Department from mothballing aging aircraft such as the A-10 attack plane and the U-2 spy plane. The bill also impedes the retirement of an aircraft carrier and opposes base closures.

These decisions would force the Pentagon to offset these costs by making cuts in other areas of the budget. They also create additional future costs for the Pentagon even as it faces deeper spending cuts in 2016.

"Over the past year, Defense leaders and I have built a budget plan that makes a series of tough choices to match resources to real strategic priorities and missions," said Hagel. "This budget is now being debated before Congress. And that means we have entered a crucial period for our military’s future, one that will play out not just in the coming months of debate, but over the next few years and beyond."

Lawmakers in Washington, meanwhile, remain as divided as ever over spending issues. "Neither party is going to make the concessions in a negotiation to lift sequester altogether," HASC member

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said April 28. A compromise to lift the Pentagon's spending caps would require Republicans to agree to increased budgets for nondefense agencies.

"We have to deal with 100 percent of the budget, with no carve-outs," Larsen said. "Dealing with sequester for everything is the challenge we face."

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said defense budgets should be increased, but that would require a grand bargain over entitlement spending.

"Two thirds of our budget is entitlements," he said. "Until we deal with that we will not be dealing with our budget issues. ... I do think we need to increase spending and work to get more defense out of the money we spend," he said April 28 at the Brookings Institution. "There is a value to numbers of ships and airplanes. The world has some doubts about us, including our own budget mess."

Asked to project what the defense budget might look like in 2016, Thornberry replied: "I could probably give you a better answer if I knew how the November elections were going to come out."

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

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