WASHINGTON, D.C. — Disciplined priorities and tough choices will be needed to guide the Defense Department’s historical transition aimed at maintaining strong, capable and ready forces in the stark post-conflict fiscal environment, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said July 22.
Speaking at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Louisville, Ky., Hagel said the changes underway, like those that followed every other major conflict in U.S. history, will have a major impact on the future force.
“They always have enormous ramifications and consequences for our entire defense enterprise in terms of national security priorities, available resources and the needs of our men and women in uniform and their families,” he told the forum.
Ensuring the United States has the force it needs now and will continue to need in the future requires a reshaping of defense institutions “designed for different strategic and budgetary realities,” he said.
Hagel shared the principles that he said are guiding decision-making following the end of the Iraq War, the drawdown underway in Afghanistan and the complications of budget cuts mandated by sequestration:
• Prioritizing DOD missions and capabilities around the core responsibility of defending the country;
• Maximizing military combat power;
• Preserving and strengthening military readiness; and
• Honoring the service and sacrifices of DOD personnel.
The secretary emphasized the importance of setting clear strategic priorities to implement the president’s defense strategic guidance at a time of huge financial challenges.
These challenges include $37 billion in mandated cuts under sequestration, which Hagel called an “irresponsible” and “terribly damaging” process.
Unless the law changes, DOD will have to absorb $52 billion in cuts next year and a total of $500 billion in cuts over the next decade, he said. That’s on top of $487 million in reductions over 10 years that already are being made.
“These cuts are forcing us to make tough but necessary decisions to prioritize missions and capabilities around our core responsibility, which is the security of our country,” Hagel said. That requires DOD to identify what is not absolutely essential to defending the nation and its interests, and to prioritize how it matches missions to resources, he told the veterans.
“The president must be assured that the options we present to him … to protect our country and defend our national interests are ready and real,” he said.
Protecting the country in an era of reduced resources will require maximizing the military’s fighting strength, the secretary said. “Preserving combat power means the department is going to have to deal with deep structural imbalances in our budget – particularly supporting infrastructure that has grown in size and expense,” he said.
Hagel emphasized the need to continue improving efficiency and drawing down costs and overhead. He noted 20 percent budget reductions already announced in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff.
“Every dollar we spend on large staffs, large headquarters and overhead, or facilities that we don’t need, is a dollar that we don’t have available to spend on readiness training and equipment for our troops – or on sustaining other vital programs that help support our people and their families,” he said.
Meanwhile, DOD leaders are being forced to make “very difficult decisions to reduce, stop and defer many activities and programs that keep our military prepared to fight,” Hagel told the veterans. These range from training and maintenance to modernization investments, he said, adding the cuts “are having and will continue to have very damaging effects.”
“Going forward, preserving and strengthening our readiness must be a key priority,” Hagel insisted, recognizing the human cost of sending a hollow force into past conflicts, particularly the Korean War. “We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past,” he said.
Hagel said he has directed the services not to retain more people, equipment and infrastructure than they can afford to keep trained and ready. “This will require careful balancing,” he said. “Professional, quality individuals are the foundation of a ready force.”
Achieving that balance will require Congress to join DOD “in a partnership of difficult choices, priorities and decisions” that Hagel acknowledged will demand cooperation and courage. Among the big issues he said they will have to address is the unsustainable growth in personnel costs that consumes half of the department’s budget.
As DOD identifies areas for cost savings, Hagel emphasized that it must honor the service and sacrifice of its people as it reshapes for the future.
“As we work to achieve the right balance, our men and women must always be assured that they will be fairly compensated, including earned benefits; given the best training and equipment; and treated as the professionals they are,” he said.
Hagel noted that 12 years of sustained conflict have stressed the force and military families, emphasizing that the department “must continue to pay close attention to their needs and our commitments to them.”
“Our military leaders do everything possible to protect our men and women on the battlefield,” he said. “We must make this same commitment to our people here at home,” as they redeploy to their home stations, and when they transition out of the military.
Hagel noted close cooperation between DOD and the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure a smooth, seamless and efficient transition from military service.
The United States stands at a defining time in its relationship with its newest generation of veterans, Hagel said, sharing an observation by Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Despite the many challenges facing our defense enterprise, we will get through this together and be stronger in the end – but only if we are prepared and willing to make wise and difficult decisions, and be much more disciplined about setting priorities,” the secretary said.