Each Pentagon chief faces unique challenges, but it’s safe to say Chuck Hagel faces a particularly daunting agenda as he becomes the 24th U.S. defense secretary.
He’s inheriting a fiscal crisis, the Afghanistan war, ongoing terrorist threats, nuclear tensions with North Korea and Iran, and rising concerns about China in the Pacific and in cyberspace.
While managing the Afghanistan drawdown and beyond will remain his top priority, a close second must be to convince his bloated enterprise that it’s overdue for structural reform — without which it’s doomed to spend ever more to get ever less.
First, he must convince his civilian and military subordinates that the spending cuts aren’t temporary — the salvation many expected from pro-defense lawmakers never materialized. Instead, the cuts will span many years, which is why institutional reform is so critical.
Making matters worse, too many in and out of uniform believe they’ve already reformed enough and that the choice is simply between spending more or deeply slashing capabilities.
It’s a false choice. Yes, efforts over the past four years have improved the efficiency of an inefficient organization. But as former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen once astutely observed, more than a decade of soaring funding has degraded the Defense Department’s ability to set priorities.
And yet that very skill — to distinguish the truly important from the nice-to-have — is a root problem compounded by layer upon layer of organization and bureaucracy that, over decades, has grown so ponderous that it’s not only draining valuable resources but also hampering lines of communication, paralyzing agility and stifling innovation.
As he is briefed by his top leadership team and travels across his vast new enterprise, Hagel must listen carefully. But he must also make time for reformers outside DoD. Indeed, the kind of massive, organizational innovation he needs is more likely to be found outside the Pentagon’s five sides than within.
Hagel has little time to waste. He has perhaps 18 months to get this heavy ball rolling, starting by making clear that if DoD maintains its historic course of reducing the force and cutting programs rather than changing how it does business, capabilities will atrophy.
Hagel must reform acquisition, requirements and missions, but cutting unnecessary overhead and halting soaring personnel costs are paramount. Here, even on Capitol Hill, leading opponents of any military benefits reforms, like Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, say change is necessary.
Hagel also must stamp out within DoD or the administration the notion that America is a declining power, an impression that military leaders fueled by telling lawmakers that cuts would plunge the nation to second-class status.
Hardly. By any measure, the United States — despite cuts — will remain the world’s pre-eminent and indispensable nation.
Hagel also must spur DoD to learn from smaller allies how they have maintained capability despite fiscal austerity. Britain, Denmark, Israel and Sweden have all made smart trade-offs, learning to develop new gear faster and cheaper and adopting novel operating concepts to gain capability while slashing costs.
Hagel reports to the Pentagon battered by an acrimonious confirmation process, but the no-nonsense former sergeant arrived unbowed and ready to rally his troops. With less money to spend in a dangerous world, he must force DoD to make every penny count.