Chuck Hagel has had a remarkable career so far. A two-term senator from Nebraska, he earned a formidable reputation as a well-informed, outspoken and bipartisan legislator. A year ago, he was sworn in as US secretary of defense.
Perhaps most relevant to his current job, four-and-a-half decades ago he served in South Vietnam as an infantry sergeant, twice wounded in action.
Last week, the Defense Department submitted its proposed 2015 budget, which Hagel described as the first postwar submission after 13 years of combat operations. The budget is “capped” at $496 billion. The president added an extra $26 billion for a new, undefined opportunity fund.
Congress will approve an overseas contingency operations account probably at the level of $80 billion, giving the department some $600 billion for defense this year. But after 2015, the annual budget will plummet to $450 billion to $500 billion or lower, depending on sequestration that cuts an additional $50 billion a year from defense after 2016.
The budget called for reducing the active-duty Army to 440,000 and the Marines to 182,000. Critics were quick to point out that this is the lowest level since prior to World War II, a nonsensical observation. In 1940, out of a total force of 460,000, the Army numbered 270,000 and the Marines 28,000. Today, US ground forces total more than 620,000 and the entire active-duty force is about 1.3 million. This force is the most potent in the world.
The budget also proposed cutting the famous U-2 spy plane, the KC-10 tanker and the A-10 ground attack fleets. The most important recommendations are likely to prove the most controversial — slowing the rate of pay and benefit increases and calling for another round of base closings. Without the last two recommendations, defense will not be able to keep the current force at high levels of readiness because of a lack of money.
This gets back to Vietnam and Sgt. Hagel. By the time Hagel left South Vietnam, it was apparent to most of us who served there that we were losing. Victory, however defined, could be won only if the fight was taken to the North. That meant a ground invasion to cut North Vietnam in half and mining the north’s harbors to force a peace (although mining was carried out after the 1972 Easter invasion).
Neither Presidents Johnson nor Nixon was prepared to take that risk, and neither Congress nor the US public would have supported such an escalation.
Yet none of the top military brass was prepared to bring this bleak assessment to the president and his administration. Overly optimistic and misleading reports continued to mask the inevitable outcome. Truth and fact were subordinate to what was perceived as the limits of politics. And no one had the courage to challenge those limits.
After the US withdrew from South Vietnam, Congress turned off all funding for Saigon, guaranteeing the North’s victory.
Fast forward to today. This year’s defense budget may indeed be as forward leaning as today’s politics allow. After all, the White House is transfixed on the November elections and not losing control of the Senate. However, as in Vietnam, certain truths are ignored only at our peril.
Even with these cuts and regardless of sequestration, the current defense plan will prove unaffordable at projected spending levels. The reason is uncontrollable cost increases for people, pay and benefits, retirement, health care and weapons. Left unchecked, by decade’s end, this cost growth will demand draconian cuts in active-duty forces by about 40 percent or leave virtually no funding for weapons, readiness and nonpersonnel accounts.
Failure to acknowledge this looming cost crisis now will make finding solutions tomorrow far more difficult, if not impossible.
Senior civilian and military officials found silence on the actual trajectory of the Vietnam War the path of least resistance and followed it.
Today, it is essential that the depth of the defense funding crisis be fully understood. Reductions will be needed especially to pay, benefits, health care and retiree accounts. A rigorous base closing commission that is far reaching is also critical.
Most importantly, if we are to maintain a highly trained, ready, well-equipped and professional force, that force will have to be a quarter or a third smaller.
That force will be more than capable of defending the nation and its allies in the coming decades provided we do this smartly. If we do not recognize this reality and let normal politics dominate, we may look back at the post-Vietnam era “hollow force” with envy. ■
Harlan Ullmanis chairman of the Killowen Group that advises government and business leaders.