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Each time a US government department faces major challenges, the tendency of its leaders is to launch a strategic review.
The Defense Department faces enormous budgetary challenges, so it’s no surprise that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel launched the Strategic Choices and Management Review soon after taking office.
The review is being run hermetically by top leaders so that tough choices are weighed objectively, but insiders view their aim to assess concrete budget scenarios as encouraging, given DoD’s strategic challenge is as much about money as it is al-Qaida, China, Iran or Syria.
The review by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey is assessing futures with a decade of cuts at three levels: $100 billion, $300 billion and $500 billion.
Conventional wisdom holds that more defense cuts are coming, likely around $300 billion, forcing tough choices across all services, yet far less draconian than slashing a half trillion dollars from out-year spending.
The overdue review will give DoD greater control over a future that’s out of control, an unsettling reality for a department that prides itself on meticulous fiscal and operational planning.
While still working to implement $500 billion in mandated cuts over the next decade, DoD has been forced to cut another $37 billion from this year’s budget through sequestration, even as it continues to be funded through a constricting and inefficient continuing resolution. Lacking clarity about its budget future, the Obama administration submitted to Congress an unrealistic 2014 budget request in line with the five-year 2013 funding plan.
While America’s debt is shrinking thanks to frozen government spending and an improving economy, DoD’s budgetary fate depends on a broader and elusive budget deal between the administration and Congress.
Though some critics have blasted Hagel’s review as a mere financial exercise, the essence of strategy is aligning means and ends; and this review is a critical step to navigating DoD’s near-, mid- and long-term future.
It is critical, though, that the Pentagon not merely make cuts but also implement meaningful reforms, otherwise it will be forced to reduce capabilities vital to maintaining America’s global influence.
On coming to office, Hagel vowed reform, but his message has faltered under the sustained assault from those vested in preserving an unsustainable status quo. He must rededicate himself and harness allies in DoD and in Congress to fundamentally change how DoD operates.