DeM Banter: always good to check international news sources (although their spelling is a tad off). Interesting times call for interesting solutions…status quo stopped working several years ago…
March 1, 2013
Chuck Hagel’s biggest problem will be Congress
It is hardly the ideal moment to become US defence secretary. At midnight on Friday, Chuck Hagel will be hit by a $46bn Pentagon spending cut that is expressly meant to be damaging. Even if Congress and the White House agree to replace the sequestration soon, the Pentagon faces years of tight budgets. Yet there is a huge difference between overseeing intelligent cuts that flow from strategic choices and the indiscriminate mandate awaiting Mr Hagel. Let us hope his tenure can be about the former.
Mr Hagel will have only limited discretion to finesse the sequestration which will subtract 9.4 per cent from the Pentagon’s budget in 2013. Since Congress excluded some large items, including uniformed personnel, it will mean an average 13 per cent cut on other programmes. Among the immediate steps, the Pentagon will give a day a week off to 800,000 civilian employees for five months, suspend or slow some types of training and delay carrier deployments. As the sequestration continues, rising uncertainty will further slow a sclerotic institution. This is no way to run national security.
Yet the Pentagon remains in chronic need of overhaul. Defence is built around pork-barrel politics. It is here – and not Mr Hagel’s alleged views on Iran and Israel that caused such controversy in his confirmation – that Congress poses the biggest headache. Take the Pentagon’s $388bn strike fighter, which is 70 per cent over budget and years behind schedule. Experts say the F35 improves only marginally on the existing F15. Yet the most expensive item in US defence history is protected by a bipartisan lobby in Congress. Its chief contractor, Lockheed Martin, has distributed business across 45 states. No wonder it is sacroscant.
Mr Hagel will have no chance of wresting procurement from Congress unless he can win the larger strategic arguments. The US needs a searching debate about defence priorities. Too much spending is geared to fighting highly unlikely land wars in Asia. And too little of the right spending, such as on cyberwarfare and asymmetric combat, is allocated efficiently. Such debates are unlikely if the sequestration holds. Until then, Congress should at least give Mr Hagel discretion over where the cuts fall.