Is Hagel already giving up on reforming the defense budget?

Department of Defense/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, starts his day reading newspaper excerpts in the "Early Bird", in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 9, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Secretary Hagel gave up on making real change at the Pentagon before it even has a chance to begin.

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  • Hagel indicated that the President’s 2014 budget request would attempt bigger, long-term change later (if at all).

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  • Let’s hope the new Secretary of Defense isn’t giving up on the need for overdue change quite so soon.

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Today, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave his first major policy speech since assuming command of the US Department of Defense (DoD). While the secretary started with a bang by hitting all the right notes and themes regarding defense reform, he unfortunately ended with a whimper that dampens any expectations for tangible results.

Secretary Hagel said all the right words for those examining the out-of-whack internal defense budget priorities. AEI recently issued a report noting how sequestration actually provides an opportunity to tackle overdue and necessary changes at the Pentagon. Many areas in need of reform have remained unchecked and experienced generous growth within the defense budget, including

  • Bureaucratic overhead;
  • Excess infrastructure; and
  • Deferred and in-kind compensation for DoD personnel.


Many other think tanks and outside organizations have been banging the same drum, and it seems Secretary Hagel took notice.

Hagel noted that fundamental reform of these major internal cost drivers of the defense budget is required. But after discussing at length why these must be areas of targeted change, he then turned around and gave himself an out.

A big one.

Secretary Hagel noted that while he will examine these areas for reform, it may just turn out that dramatic changes could prove “unwise, untenable or politically impossible.”

Secretary Hagel gave up on making real change at the Pentagon before it even has a chance to begin. He appears to be saying that these challenges warrant scrutiny, but action is questionable at this point. This simply negates all of his reasoning and rationale for why these cost drivers must be tackled now.

Congress and the bureaucracy will surely hear this massive caveat and happily oblige. Hagel indicated in his Q&A session with the audience that the president’s 2014 budget request would likely seek to recycle many of the previously rejected proposals in these areas and attempt bigger, long-term change later (if at all).

The problem is that “later” (i.e., fiscal year 2015) kicks controversy into the mid-term election season. Once that gets underway, Secretary Hagel’s unique moment to come into office and break glass, upend tradition and promote fundamental change will be up. Let’s hope the new secretary of defense isn’t giving up on the need for overdue change quite so soon.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

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