Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel struck the right themes in his first major address, delivered today at the National Defense University. The question now is whether he can follow through with new policies.
The most important part of his speech came when Hagel expressed his understanding of the limits of military power:
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. 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.
Hagel is not the first defense secretary to make this point, but if the Obama administration follows through on it, we will be well on the way to reshaping our military to meet the most urgent threats we face.
The second key element of the Hagel speech was its realistic assessment of the budgetary challenges faced by his department. While he did address some of the potential consequences of the sequester, he didn't resort to the sort of rhetorical overkill so often used by his predecessor, Leon Panetta. There was no talk of "devastating" consequences, or the threat of a "hollow force," just a practical tone that suggested that the sequester is a challenge to be managed, not an unprecedented disaster. Tone matters, and Hagel set the right one for discussing defense priorities going forward.
Another welcome aspect of Hagel's address was his pledge that the strategic review that he has requested will entail "a process to develop choices, options and priorities to deal with further reductions in the defense budget that could result from a comprehensive deficit reduction deal or the persistence of sequester level cuts." He's not suggesting that he welcomes the sequester, but he does make it clear that his department will plan for it, not just dig in its heels and try to scare the public and the Congress into resisting it. Hagel even went so far as to acknowledge "the opportunities inherent in budget constraints and more efficient and effective restructuring." And he cited a number of examples, from the "lean interwar years" between World War I and World War II to the post-Cold War period of the 1990s, where key innovations were developed even in the face of diminished resources.
And while Hagel did not use the opportunity of his speech to outline specific cuts that may be in the offing, he did suggest that we have to reexamine the missions we ask our armed forces to carry out; that we may need fewer troops; that some of our current weapons platforms may be too complicated and expensive for the tasks at hand (my nominee in this category is the F-35 combat aircraft); and that there is room to cut the officer corps and the Pentagon's huge back office bureaucracy.
The one area that was not touched on in the speech was our bloated nuclear arsenal. Hagel served on a commission assembled by the organization Global Zero that suggested that we could cut our current nuclear arsenal by more than one-fifth, from 5,000 to 900 total warheads, 450 of which would be deployed at any one time. And while Hagel backed off of these recommendations in his confirmation hearings -- suggesting that they were only "illustrative" and refusing to defend them in detail -- one would hope that now that he is in office he would take a second look and realize the wisdom of this course. Not only would making substantial cuts in the arsenal save tens of billions of the $640 billion we are slated to spend on nuclear-related items over the next decade, but it would also give the United States leverage to convince other countries to begin the process of reducing their own arsenals. There will still be tough cases like North Korea and Iran that will be unlikely to re-calibrate their nuclear ambitions based on the number of warheads possessed by the United States, but U.S. reductions would help efforts to rally other nations around strategies to cap or prevent these programs from moving forward.
The real test of Hagel's rhetoric will be in the budgets generated by his department. If he can be persuaded to spend the Pentagon's funds in line with the concepts set out in his first address, there may be hope for a new approach that reshapes the U.S. military while saving hundreds of billions in the process.