WASHINGTON — The military must prepare for major upheaval, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Tuesday, because meeting the budgetary and security challenges of the future will “require significant change across every aspect of our defense enterprise.”
And deep cuts in end strength could be just one of the results.
In a speech at a Washington security forum sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Hagel signaled that one of the hard questions facing military leaders at a time of plummeting military spending — whether to retain a hefty active-duty military with older equipment and technology, or cut troop numbers and focus on modernization — has largely been answered.
The future of the U.S. military won’t be one in which large numbers of troops grow accustomed to garrison life on major bases, he told the audience.
Instead, to prepare for a chaotic and “historically unpredictable” future global security environment, the military must focus future spending on beefing up advanced capabilities like cyberwar, special operations, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, Hagel said.
“(W)e will make a shift, for example, by prioritizing a smaller, modern, and capable military over a larger force with older equipment,” he said. “We will also favor a globally active and engaged force over a garrison military.”
Hagel did not specify any impending changes in the balance of forces Tuesday, but details are expected to become clearer as planning for the 2015 defense budget proceeds.
Meanwhile, to meet national defense responsibilities with fewer active duty troops to draw on, military planners will need to make better use of the reserve component, recognizing the limitations of that approach, he said.
“We will look to better leverage the reserve component, tempered by the knowledge and experience that part-time unit in ground forces especially, cannot expect to perform at the same levels as full-time units, at least in a conflict’s early stages,” he said.
The deficit-cutting measure known as sequestration, which could cut a potential $500 billion from planned defense spending over a decade, might also force military leaders to devise a system to keep some units ready for action while leaving others at lower readiness levels.
“We may have to accept the reality that not every unit will be at maximum readiness, and some kind of a tiered readiness system is perhaps inevitable,” Hagel said. “This carries the risk that the President would have fewer options to fulfill our national security objectives.”
Whether to favor a larger military or a smaller but more modern one still seemed to be an open question in July, when Hagel laid out a range of options outlined a four-month study, known as the Strategic Choices and Management Review, designed to help the Pentagon navigate sequestration.
Following one possible approach outlined in the study — one aimed at protecting programs like the Joint Strike Fighter and missions such as the long range strike and cyberwar capability — active duty ground forces would be severely cut. The Marine Corps could drop to 150,000 troops, while the Army could shrink to between 380,000 and 450,000 troops, rather than the current plan of 490,000 by 2017. The same approach could also lead to the elimination of up to three carrier groups, according to the study.
Taking the opposite course would result in higher troop numbers and better ability for regional power projection, Hagel said in July, but that would force severe cuts in modernization, reductions in cyber capabilities and a smaller Special Operations Command.
“Cuts on this scale would, in effect, be a decadelong modernization holiday,” he said.
The military must prepare for major changes, he said.
Among those are institutional reform to reduce spending that doesn’t contribute directly to defense, including “paring back the world’s largest back office” — a step that includes 20 percent headquarters cuts that Hagel announced in recent months.
The military must reform its personnel and compensation policies as well, Hagel said.
“Without serious attempts to achieve significant savings in this area — which consumes roughly half of the DoD budget and is increasing — we risk becoming an unbalanced force,” he said. “One that is well-compensated, but poorly trained and equipped, with limited readiness and capability.”
In the broad-ranging speech, aimed at laying out Hagel’s vision of the future of the U.S. military’s role in the world, the defense secretary cautioned that military might is only one aspect of national power, and the Pentagon must remain mindful that it is a supporting player, rather than a lead actor, in shaping U.S. foreign policy.
“We will need to place more of an emphasis on our civilian instruments of power,” he said, “while adapting our military so that it remains strong, capable, second-to-none, and relevant in the face of threats markedly different from what shaped it during the Cold War and over the past two decades.”