Managing the Pentagon in 2015: Challenges for the Next Defense Secretary

The coverage of Chuck Hagel's resignation as Defense Secretary last week underscored the difficult challenges and intense pressures that accompany the position. Confronted by a number of foreign crises and threats to U.S. national security interests, the Defense Secretary should play an important role in crafting administration strategy and policy. Much of the conjecture about Hagel's departure focused on his relations with the White House and frustrations over policy differences. But an equally important part of the Secretary's portfolio -- and perhaps a source of greater stress and frustration -- is the day-to-day management of the Defense Department, its bureaucracies, and its budget, particularly at a time of fiscal austerity and polarized domestic politics. Fielding the capabilities necessary to implement the administration's strategy is a primary responsibility. Given the uncertain and complex nature of the international security environment and the dysfunctional politics of Washington, the next Secretary faces a truly daunting set of tasks.

Since 2013, the Pentagon (like other U.S. government departments and agencies) has been working under the constraints of the Budget Control Act (BCA). Beyond making major budget cuts to the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 budget, the BCA also implemented a mechanism termed "sequestration" to execute further across-the-board cuts to all discretionary spending in absence of further legislation. The specter of this draconian outcome was supposed to drive legislators to a more reasonable compromise of targeted budget cuts and reductions. Unfortunately, it failed and the Pentagon must plan to further cut approximately $115 billion across the next several years. With a new Congress, there may be an opportunity to revisit sequestration and its effects on the Defense Department, but the outcome remains highly uncertain. What is particularly worrisome to experts and observers is that the Obama administration had already begun to significantly reduce the defense budget, and prior to the BCA the Pentagon had planned for almost $600 Billion in long-term cuts. Thus, with sequestration the defense budget may shrink by almost a trillion dollars by 2021.

If sequestration levels remain in effect, significant cuts will be made in active duty Army and Marine end strength (or number of troops). While it was expected that active duty troop numbers would decrease from the high point of the last decade, projected levels are significantly lower than those of the 1990s. Perhaps more importantly, readiness - a difficult concept to precisely quantify - is also expected to be negatively affected. For those who argue that the United States will not engage in another long-term counter-insurgency or stability operation like Afghanistan or Iraq, this may not be a pressing concern. However, for others, the fear is that if the United States security interests required a major deployment of ground forces over the next decade, those forces may not be adequately trained, equipped or prepared for combat, possibly leading to greater casualties and even military failure. In addition, experts point out that cutting end strength is likely to place a greater burden on those remaining troops (fewer troops for more rotations) which make recruiting and retention more difficult over the long-term.

Beyond manpower, the Pentagon also faces major modernization concerns. The massive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program which will replace several short-range tactical strike/fighter aircraft for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps has proven more expensive than planned, placing pressure to cut the quantities purchased. With the F-22 Raptor, the Air Force's "air dominance" fighter (and another troubled acquisition story), the Joint Strike Fighter was projected to be the backbone of U.S. tactical airpower. However, given the subsequent developments of airpower and air defense capabilities among likely adversaries (Russia, China) the capabilities of the JSF may not prove worth the high price. At this point in the procurement process, defense officials may have little alternative but to see the program through even if the outcome proves far from optimal in either cost-effectiveness or operational terms.

The Air Force is also engaged in the early stages of developing its next-generation long-range strike platform -- a penetrating bomber -- to replace the B-2 stealth bomber, as well as the aging fleet of B-52s and B-1s. With both a strategic (nuclear) role and a critical contribution to overcoming anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategies of key regional powers, this program is deemed critical to U.S. power.

The U.S. Navy is confronting a number of acquisition issues, such as determining the scale of deployment of the small, swift and versatile Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), maintaining planned levels of Los Angeles class attack submarines, refurbishing the USS George Washington and/or developing a new nuclear aircraft carrier (CVN) and planning the construction and deployment of surface combatants.

The Navy is also embarking on the replacement of the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, a key component of America's strategic nuclear deterrent. However, concerns have already emerged about the Pentagon's ability to adequately fund this vitally important program. Taken together with the long-range bomber program, two legs of the U.S. Nuclear triad are due for replacement over the next decade and a half and the question of resources remains unclear.

The third leg of America's nuclear deterrent is also in need of immediate attention. While testing scandals have drawn most attention related to the land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, the Minuteman program is in need of replacement or at least significant refurbishment. Having been long neglected, the nuclear "enterprise" may require investments if billions of dollars just to keep the existing force viable for another decade.

Finally, devising and executing policies that address longer-term threats like cyber-warfare must be carried out alongside efforts to respond to pressing challenges like the rise of the Islamic State and the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, Russia's incursions into Ukraine and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, as well as ongoing commitments like prosecuting the global war on terrorism and implementing the so-called "Pivot" to Asia. Balancing the perceived needs of the uniform services and the concerns of the military leaders (the Joint Chiefs of Staff) with the strategic vision and core national interests defined by the president is a difficult task under the best of circumstances, and Washington today is far from an ideal environment for effective policy-making.

Since its creation in 1947, the Secretary of a Defense has typically played a vital role in the development and implementation of U.S. national security policy. As the United States military and the Department of Defense expanded throughout the Cold War, the position became more influential, and given the growing role of the U.S. military to the overall implementation of American foreign policy in the post-Cold War period, the concerns and responsibilities of the Pentagon have only increased. Given the complexity and uncertainty of today's international security environment and the obstacles to developing coherent policies amidst a polarized and divided domestic political scene, it is clear that the next Secretary of Defense will face enormous challenges.