Hagel’s Priorities

Hagel’s Priorities

I agree with Dov that the White House is behaving utterly irresponsibly with regard to defense spending and policy — and I even favor further spending cuts, which Dov does not. President Obama has for his entire term in office treated DOD like an ATM machine, cutting its budget to free up money for his priorities while excoriating Congress for the consequences of those cuts. President Obama clearly doesn’t share the Pentagon’s concern about further cuts, blithely saying the $490 billion already cut can be matched. The White House chose to exclude personnel costs from budget cuts, ratcheting up pressure on other parts of the budget. The president was shameless enough to go to Camp Pendleton during the government shutdown, stand in front of the assembled Marines and say "what makes me frustrated is that sometimes the very folks who say they stand with our military, the same folks are standing in the way of the sequester. It’s important to look at deeds, and not just words."

But Hagel is also to blame for the mismanagement evident at DOD. The Defense Department turned in a FY 2014 budget $54 billion in excess of the Budget Control Act ceiling, exacerbating the cuts that would need to be made when sequestration came into effect. Services were permitted to spend in excess of their annual burn rate in the months before sequestration went into effect, in order to accentuate the degree of cuts and therefore the damage they could claim was the result of sequestration. According to former Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter, the Pentagon only began "prudent planning" for sequestration two weeks before it came into effect. Services that had programmed their money carefully enough that they didn’t need to furlough civilian employees (the Navy) were required out of solidarity to transfer money to the other services and participate in furloughs.

Hagel’s Strategic Choices Management Review was supposed to identify where trade-offs would need to be made. Beyond the simplistic "quantity or quality" metric Hagel summarized in his out-brief to the press, it produced very little. Army end strength wasn’t even raised as an issue. The leader of the Air Force Quadrennial Defense Review team said of the SCMR "there was no strategy in it, there were no choices in it."

Dov is exactly right that the cutting-edge enablers of our military proficiency (ISR, precision strike) and shielding our vulnerabilities (space, cyber) are where to prioritize spending, but very little in Hagel’s actual choices as secretary suggests he is doing so. The criticism holds across all six of Hagel’s priorities: reduce "the world’s biggest back office" by 20 percent; make contingency scenarios drive force structure; tier readiness; protect emerging capabilities; "preserve balance" between compensation, training, and equipment; and reform personnel compensation.

Compensation reform is the most egregious illustration: it needs doing, but DOD isn’t doing it. It’s great that he set up a commission to review compensation…except that the Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation concluded its work less than a year ago. Budget experts like the estimable Todd Harrison at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments have provided a welter of suggestions for curbing the runaway cost of personnel compensation. The debate is not lacking ideas or alternatives, it is lacking the leadership heft — both from DOD’s civilian and military leaders — to shame Congress into accepting that not every "vote to support our men and women in uniform" is actually good for the Department of Defense in these austere times. Especially when denying them the training and equipment that will make them effective and reduce the risk of casualties is the alternative.

I very much hope Secretary Hagel will actually take up some of these ideas, and those that his own commission will put forward, but giving speeches and setting up commissions are not the same as taking on the Military Officers Association of America and other lobbying groups that will make votes uncomfortable for members of Congress to cast. The service chiefs will have to play an active part in changing the political dynamic from one that rewards compensation votes to one that educates the Congress and public to understand greater compensation will actually be harmful because training and equipment will get short shrift.

That DOD is in such a parlous state is largely its own fault, the result of weak leadership and bad management. Even former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been critical, saying "these decisions have been by the seat of the pants, what’s essential and what’s not essential. I think not enough thought was put into how exactly this would be implemented." Hagel needs to up his game, and so does the military leadership.