Eight hours. That’s how long members of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee grilled former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel during his confirmation hearing last week to become America’s next defense secretary.
Yet, during the often acrimonious session, lawmakers didn’t spend one second discussing Hagel’s top priority if confirmed: reforming America’s defense enterprise.
As defense secretary, Hagel would advise the president on the use of force against Iran, nuclear weapons reductions and America’s relationship with Israel. But on each of these issues, the decisions will be made by the president. Hagel will be expected as secretary to support and implement those decisions or find another job.
The Senate is duty-bound to vet nominees for senior positions. Although Hagel has said things the GOP doesn’t like, that doesn’t mean he’s unfit for office.
So the SASC members’ inquiry during the hearing more appropriately, and responsibly, should have focused on the issues that the nominee will face on the job and have more control over. Indeed, by failing to question the nominee on management, senators gave the impression they’re not particularly interested how the world’s best-funded military is run.
Whether Hagel is confirmed, as expected, or not, whoever succeeds Leon Panetta as defense secretary must make reforming the Pentagon a top priority.
First, the new secretary must convince his top civilian and military ranks that without reform, America’s defense establishment will continue to spend ever more for ever less capability. He must make a clear case that further painful defense cuts are unavoidable and must be prepared for. But he must also push back against damaging automatic, across-the-board cuts in favor of authority to make strategic reductions he and service leaders craft together to preserve national security capabilities by prioritizing missions and programs.
Second, all Americans must accept entitlement reform, including in the military. When the all-volunteer force was adopted in 1972, former Defense Secretary Thomas Gates warned the shift from conscription eventually would become unaffordable without promotion and benefits reforms. Those reforms never happened, and personnel costs are rising faster than the Pentagon can shed people and programs to fund.
As a twice-wounded Vietnam vet, Hagel will be singularly able to advocate for reforms that fairly but more affordably reward military service and sacrifice.
Third, Hagel must launch an all-out drive to reassess whether all the work that military people perform — especially across vast DoD, military, joint, combatant and subordinate staffs — is really necessary. Merely cutting people without reconsidering whether the tasks they’re performing are essential means fewer people are left doing work that may not be necessary at the expense of what may be vital.
Fourth, efforts to jettison unnecessary requirements and regulations that increase weapons costs must be accelerated. Better acquisition skills and closer cooperation with industry are vital. Trust more, but verify and punish those who betray that trust.
Fifth, as America looks past Afghanistan, some DoD leaders want to distance themselves from counterinsurgency operations and the challenges that go with it. That’s a mistake as such low intensity operations will be necessary in the future. Indeed, senior officers already worry that despite having created the world’s best-educated force, too many operations are planned as if they all were the same, merely different in scale. But given America will opt for a lighter footprint, it’s time for better cultural, social and demographic understanding of both future enemies as well as allies to achieve strategic aims with minimal force.
The next defense secretary will take office as DoD faces fiscal calamity. While he will have to deal with myriad immediate challenges, he must keep his strategic eye on reforming a Pentagon in dire need of it.