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Editorial: Hagel’s Ambitious Agenda

Apr. 7, 2013 - 04:15PM   |  
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Chuck Hagel’s delivery was a bit flat in his first major speech as U.S. defense secretary April 3, but his message was clear: The Obama administration is pushing ahead with its obligation to cut another $500 billion from the long-range defense spending plan over the next decade under sequestration — on top of a similar level of cuts already approved.

Hagel’s speech came a week ahead of the White House rollout of its 2014 defense budget request. That is expected to be an opening bid to revive a “grand bargain,” revising cuts that over a decade would take only $100 billion from DoD, with the other $400 billion to come from other federal accounts.

But with that not yet on the table, Hagel outlined what would be the most sweeping review of Defense Department operations, organization and budgeting since reforms under the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act.

It was a pointed departure from his predecessor, Leon Panetta, who openly resisted cuts beyond the half-trillion approved before sequestration.

In that sense, Hagel was speaking mainly to Pentagon leaders and their head-in-the-sand hope that Panetta could find a detour around more cuts — a mindset that led to the drafting of a budget proposal for 2014 and beyond that, incredibly, pretends sequestration isn’t happening.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are to report by May 31 on U.S. strategic challenges in the coming decade, a review that will help set funding priorities.

There are three prime target areas for reform and cost savings:

• Personnel costs.

Military retirement and health care benefits, along with other personnel costs, have more than doubled over the past 10 years, clearly an unsustainable rate. Yet until recently, just talking about changes in these areas was considered a political third rail, dangerous and untouchable. Now, even the staunchest defenders of military pay and benefits on Capitol Hill acknowledge an intractable budget reality and the need to consider changes.

Reforms that provide attractive yet more-affordable benefits for future service members, while honoring commitments to those serving today, could reap deep savings. So, too, would balancing end strength to cut the costly “tooth-to-tail” ratio of three support troops for every one in the combat zone.

• Overhead.

Hagel pointed out that while much of the U.S. military’s operational force has shrunk and been streamlined since the Cold War, the “back office” of flag officer-heavy command and support structures have dodged cuts, even grown. The Dempsey-Carter “Strategic Choices and Management Review” will include an evaluation of military end strength and should start by looking at bloat at the top. Estimates put the number of personnel in those support structures, everything from the Defense Secretary’s office to the staffs of the combatant commands, at 240,000, with an annual cost of $113 billion, or more than 20 percent of the 2013 base DoD budget request.

• Acquisitions and procurement.

Affordability is the watchword. That demands a simplified, expedited buying process for weapons and platforms that are more readily available and provide broader utility than much of the high-concept programs and ever-changing requirements that fuel delays and cost overruns.

The scope of Hagel’s goals means it will take at least three years before changes take root, experts say, as was the case with reforms under Goldwater-Nichols. It is undeniably an ambitious undertaking, but one that’s vitally necessary. Success requires that Hagel forge strong allies on Capitol Hill, in the Pentagon and among defense industry leaders. And he has to begin that mission now.

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