WASHINGTON — Get ready for big moves at the Defense Department, as the organization tries to adapt to a world of complex threats, spiraling costs and massive budget cuts.
That was the upshot of Chuck Hagel's first official policy address as Pentagon chief.
The former GOP senator from Nebraska has ordered a strategic review of the department's plans, to be completed by the end of May. Hagel said all past assumptions must be challenged, all options placed on the table.
“This effort will by necessity consider big choices that could lead to fundamental change and a further prioritization of the use of our resources,” Hagel said. “Change that involves not just tweaking or chipping away at existing structures and practices but, where necessary, fashioning entirely new ones that are better suited to 21st century realities and challenges.”
About 650 uniformed and civilian military personnel gathered to hear Hagel's speech in an auditorium at the National Defense University in Washington.
With a little more than a month on the job, Hagel steered clear of specific proposals.
Instead, he framed the urgent questions that have to be answered.
Those start with the painful fiscal realities that will color every move Hagel makes as defense secretary. Congress already had trimmed $487 billion over 10 years from the defense budget before the onset of the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.
The additional half-trillion-dollar hit over 10 years was intended to be so painful that Congress would never allow it to take effect. But Capitol Hill gridlock means sequestration is now in place, and the Pentagon has been scrambling to cope through measures such as widespread civilian employee furloughs.
Regardless of whether lawmakers reach an agreement to restore sequestration funds, it's clear the Pentagon will have to deal with budget constraints.
Hagel noted that while the military has become more flexible, lethal and professional since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it also has grown older and much more expensive.
He said the department must get a handle on the chief culprits of increased defense spending — acquisitions, personnel costs and overhead.
Spiraling costs in those areas threaten to crowd out operations and other portions of the budget that are key to military preparedness, he said.
The military should not be run like a corporation, he said, but it could take some lessons from how the private sector has reduced management to cut costs and become more effective.
“Today the operational forces of the military measured in battalions, ships, and aircraft wings have shrunk dramatically since the Cold War era,” Hagel said. “Yet the three- and four-star command and support structures sitting atop these smaller fighting forces have stayed intact, with minor exceptions, and in some cases they are actually increasing in size and rank.”
Hagel also highlighted the limits of American military might in the face of anonymous cyberattacks and other nontraditional threats.
“Most of the pressing security challenges today have important political, economic, and cultural components and do not necessarily lend themselves to being resolved by conventional military strength,” Hagel said. “Indeed, the most destructive and horrific attack ever on the United States came not from fleets of ships, bombers and armored divisions, but from 19 fanatical men wielding box cutters and one-way plane tickets.”
He also said that even as the country finds ways to cut, it must continue to provide leadership.
“America does not have the luxury of retrenchment; we have too many global interests at stake, including our security, our prosperity, and our future,” he said. “If we refuse to lead, something, someone will fill the vacuum. The next great power may not use its power as responsibly or judiciously as America has used its power over the decades since World War II.”
Hagel volunteered for duty as an infantry sergeant in Vietnam, where he was twice wounded. As a senator he was highly critical of President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq War.
“We have made mistakes and miscalculations with our great power,” Hagel said. “But as history has advanced, America has helped make a better world for all people with its power. A world where America does not lead is not the world I wish my children to inherit.”
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