Is Hagel’s Red Pencil Sharp Enough to Cut DoD Waste?
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Is Hagel’s Red Pencil Sharp Enough to Cut DoD Waste?

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

On Tuesday afternoon, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) took to the Senate floor to mourn the loss of seven Marines killed in an accident earlier that day during a training drill in his home state. Moments later, Reid suggested that sequestration cuts to the Pentagon’s budget were to blame for the incident.

“This sequester should go away. We have cut already huge amounts of money in deficit reduction,” Reid said. “It’s just not appropriate, Mr. President, that our military can’t train and do the maintenance necessary.”

Marine officials at the Pentagon quickly slammed Reid for associating the accident with the budget cuts. One called Reid’s statement “pure political posturing on the backs of those dead Marines.”

Welcome to post-sequester Washington, where all cuts are political and everyone – from lawmakers with a big defense presence in their districts to Pentagon officials looking to keep what’s theirs – is out for themselves.

Reid certainly isn’t alone: Prior to the sequester and now in its wake, the military brass has been painting a dire picture, arguing that cuts to their branches and programs will hurt national defense readiness. After Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered commanders last week to review military strategy in light of current budget constraints, a number of high-ranking Pentagon officials warned that the cuts would adversely impact policy.

So far, Hagel hasn’t directly responded to these warnings. But according to defense experts, Hagel’s strategy reassessment represents a critical time in his brand new job. He can either push through the tough reforms that Obama expected when he selected him to be defense chief – or he can drag his feet in an effort to keep the Pentagon and its chiefs happy.

“Since his confirmation, he’s done the dutiful things. If the strategy review is just more budget leveraging, we can expect Hagel to be no better than the foolishness we had from Panetta,” said Winslow Wheeler, a long-time congressional staffer and national security expert who is now  director of the Straus Military Reform Project, referring to warnings about sequestration from Leon Panetta, the previous defense secretary. “If we get a more serious document that works within budget constraints, then we’ll know we have a secretary of defense rather than a gopher. This is the first sign of whether Hagel should taken seriously.”

Barry Blechman, co-founder of the Stimson Center, a non-partisan defense think tank, said the key for Hagel is to identify where bloat can be eliminated without gutting national defense capabilities.

“They’ll either make real strategy changes or end up with a hollow force, a force which is of a substantial size but doesn’t have the equipment and training to be effective,” Blechman said. “There’s an understanding that this is not the way to go.”

Moving commanders from that understanding to a position of accepting defense cuts is Hagel’s most pressing challenge. According to Blechman, Hagel needs to convince the brass that real savings can come from eliminating inefficiencies as well as from cutting large defense programs.

“It will be his ability to work with the service chiefs to get them to recognize that it’s in their own interests to make the sort of efficiency reforms that have been long recommended but not implemented,” Blechman told The Fiscal Times. “There’s a billion dollars to be saved over the next ten years by utilizing manpower more efficiently.”

Efficiency reforms include updating the Army’s command structure and eliminating redundant civilian personnel. The cuts can be combined with the elimination of wasteful spending in more high-profile programs like the F-35 fighter plane, which will allow DOD to keep its current capabilities. Hagel must convince the military that this is the right path to take.

“It’s better to make tough decisions up front that allow the Pentagon to keep a viable force down the line,” Blechman said.

According to Wheeler, Hagel’s handling of the strategy review and the subsequent budget wrangling will go a long way toward defining his term as defense chief. To date, it’s so far been blemished by a confirmation hearing in which Hagel, 66, appeared unprepared, to a highly ineffective recent visit to Afghanistan

“This is Hagel’s entry test to be taken seriously after the damage he did to himself,” Wheeler said. “Whether he’s up to the task remains to be seen.”