FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told soldiers here Monday that he has begun detailed planning for long-term budget cuts and the hard decisions that they will require.
“I could not stand back, as the Secretary of Defense, and try to lead this institution based on, ‘Well, I hope we’ll get a change,’ or, ‘Well I think maybe something will change,’ ” Hagel told dozens of soldiers with the North Carolina-based 82nd Airborne Division.
“You have to lead … based on the reality of what’s in front of you,” Hagel said.
As civilian furloughs began last week at military installations worldwide, Hagel kicked off a three-day trip down the East Coast to talk to troops, families, and civilians, his longest domestic trip since he took over the Pentagon’s top job in February.
Last week, Hagel told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the current round of budget cuts known as sequestration may force the Pentagon to freeze promotions, halt recruiting, impose civilian layoffs and scale back many weapons programs.
“There is a dark cloud that hangs over this institution,” Hagel told the troops Monday.
Current law places a cap on defense spending that amounts to a roughly 10 percent cut from last year’s budget. While some lawmakers are calling for a change to that law, many experts believe that’s unlikely to happen soon.
Hagel noted that all four services are facing similar furlough requirements, which he sees as a sign of solidarity.
“Our service leaders … have not allowed this problem to break out into tribal warfare — the Army against the Marines, the Navy against the Air Force. That is not happening. And it’s not going to happen,” Hagel said.
Hagel faced questions from troops about how long the sequestration budget cuts would last. He responded that under current law, they could last for years, and it’s unclear whether Congress will act to change that.
“No none knows what is going to happen in 2014,” Hagel said.
Hagel said top Pentagon officials are wrapping up a review of the current defense strategy to determine whether fundamental changes are needed in light of lower budget projections.
Hagel faced questions about how sequestration would impact Defense Department-run schools. He responded that some school officials were granted exemptions from the mandatory furloughs facing most defense civilian employees and some other school employees will be able to take their furloughs before the official start of the school year.
Army Staff Sgt. Travis Owens suggested that the Pentagon could save money by forcing the services to stop developing service-specific uniforms, helmets, carbines and other combat gear.
“All four branches of service have unilaterally developed a tremendous amount of equipment and clothing, to the point where now very little of what we use across the four branches of service are common, even if we’re conducting the same missions. And in this era of deep cuts that affect all of us, that’s a tremendous redundancy,” Owens said. “Is there any planning or discussion at the Pentagon to force the branches to jointly develop and field some of this common equipment that we have out there to reduce that cost, reduce that redundancy?”
Hagel responded, “Yes … we’re going to look at everything. We are looking at everything. We’re going to be forced to change things.”
Some troops at Fort Bragg said the latest round of budget cuts is affecting their unit’s training routines. For example, 2nd Lt. Chelsea Heath said her infantry platoon has scaled back field training exercises to save money on fuel.
Hagel compared the changes facing the military to those that followed the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, when the draft ended and the Pentagon institutionalized the all-volunteer force.
“In the end, we are defining a new force structure, a new institution, not unlike after Vietnam, not unlike after every conflict, not unlike every sequence of the historic cycle of world affairs,” he said.
During his trip, Hagel also will visit Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla., Joint Base Charleston, S.C., and Camp Lejeune, N.C.