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Two Cheers for Secretary Hagel as Defense Budget Is Released

Two Cheers for Secretary Hagel as Defense Budget Is Released

The Obama administration’s fiscal 2015 defense budget was released today, Feb. 24; its details have already been unearthed by the nation’s best defense journalists. The headline making news is that under the Hagel budget, "America will have the smallest Army since World War II." This is such a manipulative appeal. We ought not to wring our hands that America does not have an Army the size of that which fought the Wehrmacht — America also doesn’t have enemies of the magnitude of the Wehrmacht. Moreover, the United States not only has a better military than that which fought World War II, but it also has a much better military than that which stood astride the world as a colossus in 2001. In 2001, it cost the country $2,300 to outfit a Marine for combat; today the price tag is $21,000. With that order of magnitude increase in expense has come an order of magnitude improvement in capability. Not only are we making fewer American casualties of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen, but we are making them more lethal to our enemies. They have dramatically increased visibility and understanding of the battlefield, dramatically increased firepower, dramatically increased ranges across which to attack, and dramatically increased precision when they do attack. Moreover, the country has a combat-hardened volunteer military, with young leaders experienced in taking responsibility at much lower levels and for much greater stakes than the Army that fought World War II.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel deserves considerable credit for owning up to the fiscal reality that defense spending will no longer have galloping rates of increase. Specifically, he deserves credit for bringing the department’s budget into compliance with the law. An obvious point, one would think, is that the budget request ought to be in line with the Defense Department spending cap legislated in the 2011 Budget Control Act. Not something we loyal opposition should applaud, since it ought to be standard practice. Yet this is the first budget that acknowledges Congress has given federal spending guidelines that must be followed. The budgets submitted by Barack Obama’s administration were in excess of the top line. If the Defense Department had been within its allotted spending cap, sequestration would not have been triggered. The department was thus the proximate cause of the disastrous effects of sequestration about which the department wailed and gnashed its teeth. But the White House is principally to blame, because it issued the guidance instructing DOD to program as though sequestration would never occur. Such blatant politicization of the country’s national security is sadly the norm for the Obama White House. That DOD pushed back, quietly and within the administration, for OMB instruction that would permit more sensible programming is a real achievement, and Hagel deserves credit for it.

The second cheer is for attempting to curtail the rate at which benefits are being expanded for troops. By DOD’s own calculations, the average pay and benefits for the military have increased from $44,200 per person in 2001 to $81,600 in 2014. The country simply cannot afford to continue raising the salary and benefits packages to its forces at anything like that rate — the all-volunteer force is becoming unaffordable. Unless the rate of these burgeoning expenses is reined in, the country will not be able to afford the weapons and training that keep the military alive and winning the nation’s wars. Restricting the military to a 1 percent pay raise and some modest co-pays for family members and veterans — but not affecting currently serving soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen — is not only sensible defense policy, but it’s essential to retaining a war-winning military.

I withhold a third cheer, though, because it does not appear that Hagel has done the essential spade work to get authorization and appropriation for anything near what the Department of Defense is asking. "Cutting benefits to our troops" — even though DOD’s proposal continues to increase benefits — is woefully unpopular in Congress, especially in an election year. Getting legislators to "vote against the troops" will be a huge political challenge, the kind that requires 18 months of planning and horse trading and shaping constituents’ perceptions. Without having shaped the battlefield in that way, there’s little likelihood that the budget that Hagel gets will much resemble the budget that Hagel is requesting.