Hagel’s two most recent predecessors, Robert M. Gates and Leon E. Panetta, made similar vows as they tried to tame the vast military bureaucracy. Neither had much success, however, as they struggled to persuade Congress to cut pet projects or scale back health and pension benefits for future generations of military personnel.
The difference now, Hagel said in his first major policy address since taking office, is that the Pentagon is staring at the increased likelihood that it will be forced to slash nearly $1 trillion in projected spending over the next decade — roughly double the level confronted by Gates and Panetta.
In the past, military leaders had treated the $1 trillion figure as a worst-case possibility and assumed lawmakers would find a way to soften the blow. But the automatic spending cuts that were triggered last month have made the outcome more likely; Congress and the White House have shown little inclination to spare the Pentagon.
“A combination of fiscal pressures and a gridlocked political process has led to far more abrupt and deeper reductions than were planned,” Hagel, who took over as defense secretary in February, told an audience at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, in the District. “We cannot simply wish or hope our way to carrying out a responsible national security strategy.”
Unlike Panetta — who regularly predicted that a failure by Congress and the White House to exempt the military from automatic cuts would result in “doomsday” scenarios — Hagel spoke in a more resigned and pragmatic tone.
“The United States military remains an essential tool of American power but one that must be used judiciously, with a keen appreciation of its limits,” he said.
Thomas Donnelly, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said President Obama specifically selected Hagel to run the Defense Department so he could be “the frontman” for trimming the defense budget.
“This is the next step, putting the Pentagon on notice that they intend to make more serious and very substantial cuts,” Donnelly said.
Hagel said the biggest challenge facing the Pentagon is not its shrinking budget overall but that disproportionately large amounts of it are being consumed by unaffordable weapons systems, as well as health care, troop pay and retirement benefits.
Gates, who served as defense secretary from 2007 to 2011, warned of the same problems. Although he managed to kill a number of expensive weapons programs, he failed to persuade Congress to rein in troop compensation levels or health-care costs, which he said were “eating us alive.”
On Wednesday, Hagel alluded to the inherent difficulty in overhauling military operations and the defense budget. He said the Pentagon needs to examine some basic questions about its operations, including whether it has too many uniformed personnel doing administrative jobs that civilians could do just as easily — and more cheaply.
“It could turn out that making dramatic changes in each of these areas could prove unwise, untenable or politically impossible,” he said. “Yet we have no choice but to take a very close look.”
Hagel also said “the size and shape” of the armed forces needs to be scrutinized again, a hint that the Army and Marine Corps, each of which beefed up its ranks for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, could face further troop reductions.
The Army is officially projected to shrink to 490,000 active-duty soldiers, down from about 540,000 today. But Army planners are preparing for the possibility that the size of the force might dwindle to 440,000.
Similarly, the Marines last year were directed to cut 10 percent of their active-duty force, leaving it at 182,000 personnel by 2016. But that might not be the bottom, either.
Hagel said the military also needed to reform its command structure. He noted that the number of three- and four-star generals and admirals has generally remained “intact” since the end of the Cold War.
Command staffs, however, are especially hard to scale back. Two years ago, Gates pledged that the Pentagon would eliminate 65 billets for generals and admirals by now and 102 slots overall by 2016. But only 28 jobs had been scrapped as of Jan. 31, according to Defense Department figures.
Gordon Adams, an American University professor of foreign policy, said Hagel had correctly identified the basic spending problems afflicting the Pentagon. That’s the easy part, he added.
“It’s a good start,” Adams said. “Can he pull it off? Don’t know. Honest answer is that the jury is out.”