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Chuck, you’re the secretary now

Chuck, you’re the secretary now

Chuck Hagel may have survived his confirmation ordeal in the Senate, but his troubles may be just beginning. Sequestration is upon us, and his department will have to find a way to minimize the impact on military operations and systems acquisition of that rightly much-maligned budget cutting vehicle. 

Hagel is fortunate to have Bob Hale as comptroller. Hale is a veteran budget expert who never loses his cool. But even Hale’s expertise will not be enough to prevent the kind of wholesale damage to DOD’s force posture, both today and in the future, that Hagel’s predecessor, Leon Panetta, outlined in detail many months ago. 

Hagel must also reassure allies that the United States, and its military, are not in complete disarray. That will be hard to do as long as the sequester is in force. Nor does it help that the United States already has but one aircraft carrier deployed overseas. Not only does that signal America’s inability to maintain 24-hour sea-based aircraft operations from the onset of a crisis, it also feeds the worst fears of allies and friends that the United States is slowly, but inexorably, turning inward.

If friends will be worried, as they already are, enemies will exult. The conclusion that Iranians, North Koreans, Venezuelans, and an array of Islamic terrorist groups, not least of which is Hezbollah, will reach is that Washington does not have the clout it once did and that the door to further mischief is wide open. Rivals such as China and Russia will likewise conclude that they can pursue their interests far more aggressively, without any credible American pushback. And fence-sitters like India will be even more reluctant to welcome an American embrace. 

What can Hagel do to stop the rot? In the short term, he could voice his support for a Republican proposal to exempt DOD from sustaining its cuts across-the-board and empower Hale and his team of budget managers to allocate those cuts in a way least harmful to operations and acquisition. For the longer term, Hagel should articulate a clear message about not only the impact of further cuts to defense, but also his determination to ensure that long-standing barriers to efficient defense spending, such as the depression-era Davis-Bacon Act, or the Jones Act, which for decades has undermined the efficiency of the shipbuilding industry and has resulted in driving up the costs of naval construction, should finally be shoved aside.

Hagel could also call for raising the ceilings on reprogramming requests, which limit the comptroller’s ability to manage DOD’s cash efficiently; for funding an internal DOD audit capability to ensure that funds are not held in "reserve" by bureaucrats who then spend that money wastefully at the close of the fiscal year; and for real caps on spiraling defense health care costs. 

If ever there was an opportunity to remove the barnacles that have hung onto the DOD budget for so long, it is now. An efficiently managed DOD budget would at least to some degree soften the impact on force readiness and modernization of further massive cuts that the Obama administration, driven more by ideology than economics, erroneously concludes are central to the budget deficit. It might also help mitigate the damage that has already been done to America’s credibility as a reliable ally for the long term and as a force that its enemies must reckon with in the short-term as well. 

Hagel has forcefully asserted that the department spends its money inefficiently. He is now secretary of defense. He can do something about it and should do so now. He has no time to spare.