The DOD challenges facing Chuck Hagel

The DOD challenges facing Chuck Hagel

As Eliot Cohen rightly pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed, there is no correlation between military service and effectiveness as a senior government official. Cohen noted that neither Lincoln nor FDR had significant military experience, yet were great war leaders. One might add that Churchill’s military experience in the Boer War had little to do with his later leadership of the military, except perhaps to convince him that he knew more than his generals, which no doubt was a factor in his urging the disastrous Gallipoli operation in World War I and his constant clashes with Alan Brooke, chief of the defense staff, in World War II. And then there is Jimmy Carter, whose naval background did not mitigate his mediocre performance as commander in chief during the immediate post-Vietnam era.

Chuck Hagel’s ultimate record as SecDef likewise will have little to do with his service in Vietnam, distinguished though it was. If confirmed, Hagel will face some very tough challenges, even if the dreaded sequester does not come to pass, and it is on the basis of how he addresses those challenges, rather than his previous war record, that his performance as secretary will be judged.

It is all but certain that the cost of avoiding a sequester will be some level of additional defense cuts, beyond those already enshrined in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which called for $487 billion in cuts over a 10-year period. These additional cuts could amount to some $15 billion, perhaps more. Hagel will have to decide where those cuts will be taken.

Hagel has asserted that the Pentagon budget is bloated, but has not explained exactly what he means. The administration has already signaled that it wishes to protect the personnel accounts, even if the sequester were to come into force, despite the fact that those accounts have been steadily eating into available resources for operations, research, and procurement. Will Hagel at least try to push for limits on the growth of the Defense Health Program, which is approaching an annual cost of $60 billion? He has said little on the subject and would have to face a Congress that has resisted any real changes to health benefits for the military and their families. Will Hagel throw his weight behind the new commission on military compensation and retirement, which will address not only the health program, but the entire gamut of military benefits? Again, his position on the commission is unknown.

Many analysts are assuming that Hagel really intends to reduce the size of the DOD acquisition accounts. He has not indicated which accounts might be his target. With its announcement of a "pivot" to Asia and with instability roiling the Middle East, the DOD will already be hard-pressed to meet its commitments in both of those vast regions. Will Hagel nevertheless seek to further shrink the Navy and Air Force, likely to be the most active and visible services in both areas? Would that mean a significantly smaller carrier force and the cancellation of the program for a new manned long-range bomber? Will he attempt to further reduce the size of the Army? As chairman of the board of the Atlantic Council, Hagel has been especially sensitive to relations with Europe, yet the administration has announced plans to reduce land-force presence in Europe by two brigades. Will Hagel seek to reverse that decision? And will Hagel realize Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dream by drastically curtailing the U.S. missile defense program at a time when America’s allies have finally come to realize its importance?

Finally, would a Secretary Hagel opt for a complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, which most observers feel would at best prompt a renewal of the civil war that only ended with the American response to the 9/11 bombings, and at worst hand it right back to the Taliban?

The foregoing are the known issues that a new secretary of defense will have to face. Then there are the "unknown unknowns" that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld frequently cited. He knew of what he spoke: On Sept. 10, 2001, Rumsfeld told his Pentagon staff that the biggest challenge to the Defense Department was its own cumbersome management system. A day later he, and all of America, were confronted by a far greater challenge that has yet to be overcome.