Hagel Eyes New Post-War Era

(POLITCIO 26 FEB 14) … Philip Ewing

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is trying to do more than just lay out the Pentagon’s spending priorities for the coming fiscal year. He’s trying to mark America’s passage into a new postwar era – though not exactly peacetime.

National security leaders in the Obama administration take great pains to stress the variety of threats they say face the U.S. from every corner of the globe, including terrorists; potential peer competitors, like China; and faceless spies or saboteurs in the nation’s computer networks.

That’s why Hagel said that the budget that President Barack Obama will send Congress on Tuesday at last turns the page for a Defense Department that has been at war since 2001.

“This is the first time in 13 years we will be presenting a budget to the Congress of the United States that’s not a war-footing budget,” Hagel said in previewing the budget. “You might say that it’s a defining budget because it starts to reset, reshape, … rebalance, refine our enterprise for the future.”

Two examples: The Army is getting rid of tens of thousands of its mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that defined its two land wars. The Air Force will curtail purchases of drones, cutting its goal from a peak of 65 combat air patrols to just 55, and prepare to divest all of its Predator model aircraft as it moves to a fleet of only its larger, more powerful Reapers.

These and other weapons were vital to prosecuting the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where ground troops were vulnerable to roadside bombs, and commanders wanted constant surveillance of the battlefield – as well as the ability to attack targets on the ground.

Defense officials have acknowledged, however, that today’s generations of MRAPs and drones may not be of much use much longer. A Predator is ideal for loitering over an enemy armed with only basic weapons but cannot survive against one that actually might shoot back.

“The Air Force will slow the growth in its arsenal of armed unmanned systems that, while effective against insurgents and terrorists, cannot operate in the face of enemy aircraft and modern air defenses,” Hagel said.

That means the Air Force needs a new generation of aircraft and weapons to operate in a world in which the U.S. military may no longer be an automatic victor – a major shift in national security thinking for Washington.

“The development and proliferation of more-advanced military technologies by other nations mean that we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies and in space can no longer be taken for granted,” he said.

A senior defense official who briefed reporters on Monday called the administration’s fiscal 2015 blueprint a “consequential budget” in turning the corner after the Iraq and Afghan wars. “The recommendations in this budget are going to take us from 13 years of war to focus on our future strategic challenges and opportunities,” the official said.

Pentagon leaders made little mention in their budget rollout about the possibility that Washington hasn’t actually put Afghanistan completely behind it. It could still get orders to leave behind tens of thousands of troops to advise the Afghan National Security Forces – although Obama ordered Hagel on Tuesday to begin planning to withdraw all U.S. troops by Dec. 31 as the administration tries to pressure Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement.

Either way, the Afghan war is effectively over this year, and the Obama administration would give up the capability to wage another one like it anytime soon.

“After Iraq and Afghanistan, we are no longer sizing the military to conduct long and large stability operations,” Hagel said. That means the Army will shrink from its Iraq War peak strength of about 570,000 troops to between 450,000 and 440,000, he said – and sequestration could shrink it further, to about 420,000.

Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey cautioned that although the Pentagon must manage its shrinking budget, sequestration is still the wrong way to cut spending and turn the page.

“I’m telling you, 420 [thousand] is too low,” Dempsey said.

Wherever the Army’s end-strength finally settles, Obama seems likely to leave office with a military much smaller than the one he took command of when he was elected. That could create long-standing ripple effects for his successors, who might have fewer options for large-scale interventions or land campaigns unless they’re willing to back a major, costly buildup.

Defense officials warn that the personnel costs in the force, even a smaller one, are out of control. So they want to turn the page in a very significant other way – but reining in what they say are the unsustainable costs of the all-volunteer military. The budget Hagel previewed Monday would end an era of historic growth in troop pay and benefits, which range from everything from special incentive pays for in-demand career fields to discounts at on-base grocery stores to health care.

A senior military official went so far as to describe the Pentagon’s proposed compensation reforms as the other side of a “correction” that began after the 1990s, when troops were “underpaid.”

“Thanks to the help of Congress, we were able to correct that,” the official said. “But if we were to maintain that sort of steep correction, I think it would be irresponsible. So all we’re trying to do is just re-correct the upward glide slope a bit so that we can … maintain the right amount of compensation for the wonderful men and women that put on the cloth of this nation, so we can recruit and retain the best possible force we can, while doing it in a responsible way so that the taxpayers get the best value for their investment.”

Many important players in Washington do not share that view – or even the Pentagon’s broader interpretation that the U.S. has stepped over a threshold into a new era.

Defense advocates in Congress reacted skeptically to almost everything Hagel and his colleagues unveiled on Monday. He acknowledged that many key decisions would be out of his hands, but defended the premise that a new era has arrived.

“Now it doesn’t mean that we’re going to accomplish everything that we have proposed, and the Congress will accept the recommendation, but it is a different time,” Hagel said. “And it means that we’re required to deal with that different time in a very responsible way.”

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