“Whatever that budget decline looks like will set the context for whatever else Hagel wants to do as defense secretary,” said Gordon Adams, an international-relations professor at American University who served as a White House budget official during the Clinton administration. “We know the cuts are coming. This is a drawdown.”
Unlike current Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who previously served as chairman of the House Budget Committee and as budget director under President Bill Clinton, Hagel has little experience in the arcane but high-stakes world of defense spending. During his two terms in the Senate, the Nebraska Republican sat on the Foreign Relations and intelligence committees, but not on the Armed Services panel.
In September 2011, Hagel told the Financial Times that the Defense Department was “bloated,” adding: “The Pentagon needs to be pared down. I don’t think our military has really looked at themselves strategically, critically in a long time.”
Last year, Hagel endorsed a report by the advocacy group Global Zero that called for an 80 percent reduction in the U.S. nuclear-weapons arsenal. Such a cut could save $100 billion over 10 years, the group estimated.
Otherwise, he has given few specific indications of where he would look to save money. Many conservatives, however, suspect that he would be more willing to impose cuts than Panetta or his predecessor, Robert M. Gates.
“If the picture was gloomy before, the clouds just got darker,” said Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Hagel’s just been recruited to be a front man for further budget cuts.”
Swollen by a decade of war spending, the Pentagon’s annual budget peaked in 2010 at $690 billion and has gradually begun to recede. Most of the cuts imposed, however, have merely rolled back projected increases or reflected savings from reduced war-fighting expenses. This year’s Defense Department budget declined to $616 billion.
Few major weapons programs have been canceled since 2009. The Army and the Marine Corps are each shedding tens of thousands of troops, but only back to levels last seen in 2007, during the height of the fighting in Iraq.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior military brass have accepted the budget trimming with minimal fuss, closing ranks behind Panetta as he has tried to manage an orderly downsizing.