Given White House Constraints, Hagel Is Doing His Best

Given White House Constraints, Hagel Is Doing His Best

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appears to be making the right choices for near-term defense priorities, given the budget constraints under which he must work. He recognizes that the Pentagon is ripe, indeed, long overdue, for institutional reform. He needs to cut back on support contractors and civil servants, finally bring the acquisition system into line, and reduce other elements of unnecessary overhead spending. His headquarters reductions are more symbolic than real in terms of budget savings, however; while these cuts are necessary, it is the bloat in the field that must be trimmed as well.

Hagel is also correct to identify not only space, cyber, and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) — all favorite tools of the current Administration — as critical capabilities to be protected. He also rightly points to the need to fund major weapons systems that will ensure America’s technological lead in the years to come.

Finally, Hagel identifies the urgent need for compensation reform. The commission that has been appointed to address this issue, of which I am a member, aims to provide the Defense Department and the Congress with innovative ideas that hopefully will help enable the secretary to achieve his objectives in this regard.

What is most unfortunate, however, is Hagel’s recognition that he will be unable to fund the readiness and overseas presence necessary to signal to allies, partners, friends, and adversaries that the United States remains committed as ever to maintaining international stability. Perhaps allowing the reserves to lose some of their proficiency is a recognition of the inevitable, given the end of the major conflicts that enabled them to achieve that proficiency in the first place. But it is budget constraints that are going to hamper the overall readiness and size of the armed forces, and the White House appears ready to live with those constraints.

The administration has not been willing to treat defense as anything but just another discretionary account. Like every other such account, the administration contends, defense must "pay its share" of budget reductions. What that share actually is remains highly debatable, but in any event, the notion that defense is just another account flies in the face of both reality and the Constitution. Moreover, in the spirit of its indifference to defense, the White House has been virtually silent about the impact of the sequester on national security. It is Hagel who, like his predecessor Leon Panetta, has identified the sequester as a major threat to American security. Too bad the White House isn’t paying attention; everyone else around the world certainly is doing so.