Chuck Hagel has begun his service as our nation’s secretary of defense by sending appropriate signals.
He is making clear that, as the first former enlisted soldier to be defense secretary, he doesn’t intend to isolate himself from the troops and their concerns. He has dived into major issues straight away. And in a key speech this week, he described the challenges that the Pentagon will tackle once a strategic planning document is completed later this year.
For his first trip abroad in his new position, Hagel could have made an easy jaunt to London or Berlin. Instead, he went to Afghanistan, and during the visit Taliban forces set off a bomb nearby.
During the trip, Hagel’s negotiation with Afghan President Hamid Karzai helped break the deadlock over the transfer of a detention facility from NATO control to that of the Afghan government. These were the actions of an engaged Cabinet member.
Positive, too, was his hosting six young enlisted personnel for lunch in his private Pentagon office last week. Here is how the New York Times described it:
“Without military or civilian aides, Mr. Hagel himself took extensive notes as the sergeants and petty officers poured out their concerns about pay, benefits, training and sexual assault — issues that would decide whether they make the military a way of life or just a way station in life.”
The meeting communicated that the new defense secretary doesn’t intend to live in an ivory tower. Instead he’s saying he will work to stay connected to the concerns of service personnel at a time of major transition and challenge for our military.
Along the same line, the former Nebraska senator has said he will take a pay cut proportional to the salary reductions from sequester-required furloughs.
Hagel’s speech at the National Defense University in Washington, meanwhile, made clear that the Pentagon will need to look at a full range of options in trying to come to grips with the new fiscal limitations.
“We need to challenge all past assumptions,” Hagel said, “and we need to put everything on the table.” The Pentagon will need to study “big choices” that “could lead to fundamental change,” he said. Those choices will include the number of personnel in each service branch as well as the number of civilian employees.
Some of Hagel’s calls were familiar ones at the Pentagon, including greater cost containment on procurement and paring back bureaucracy and the number of officers in proportion to enlisted personnel.
Personnel and benefit costs, as with any organization, account for a large portion of military spending and need to be included in fiscal discipline, he stressed. Hagel cited the warning from former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead, who said that if procurement efficiencies are not achieved and personnel costs not contained, the Department of Defense would go from “an agency protecting the nation to an agency administering benefit programs, capable of buying only limited quantities of irrelevant and overpriced equipment.”
The sequester is imposing immediate cutbacks that threaten to undermine combat readiness, Hagel warned, and that shows the need for military budget restraint to be guided by sound long-term planning.
At the same time, he said, history shows how sound investments in forward-looking programs and technologies helped our military prepare for future challenges. That was the case in the 1930s, he said, when “a group of farsighted officers ... conceived important new platforms and operating concepts for armored warfare, amphibious assault, aircraft carriers, submarines and long-range bombers — all of which proved decisive in the Second World War.”
Hagel struck the proper balance on our global engagement. He stressed that our country needs to be judicious and prudent in deciding when to thrust our military into battle. At the same time, he said, the United States has an obligation to lead:
“America does not have the luxury of retrenchment — we have too many global interests at stake, including our security, our prosperity and our future. If we refuse to lead, something, someone will fill the vacuum. ... A world where America does not lead is not the world I wish my children to inherit.”
An essential component of that American leadership is a military that’s soundly structured and appropriately funded. With his comments and actions, Hagel is signaling that he has a good understanding of that critical need.