WASHINGTON — The era of blank checks to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is coming to an end, and the Pentagon faces a future of fewer troops and the likelihood of declining budgets.
Enter Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice to lead the Pentagon in his second term. The military should thank its lucky stars if the former Republican senator and decorated Vietnam War veteran wins confirmation, according to Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant and analyst at the Lexington Institute.
"The defense industry knows more cuts are coming to the Pentagon budget, but it prefers having Hagel in charge because of his background as a businessman, senator and combat volunteer in Vietnam," Thompson said. "Frankly, the industry's sick of dealing with academics at the Pentagon who don't grasp the real-world consequences of decisions."
The swipe at academics appears aimed at two other candidates rumored to have been on Obama's short list for Defense secretary. Ashton Carter, the No. 2 official at the Pentagon, and Michele Flournoy, a former top military official, are military strategists without Hagel's résumé in politics and the private sector.
The real world Thompson referred to is one in which the Pentagon will face a $487 billion reduction in its budget growth over the next decade. That would be doubled if the White House and Congress don't reach a deal by March to avoid automatic budget cuts.
A personal connection with Obama is another factor weighing in Hagel's favor, according to Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Hagel and then-Sen. Obama served together on the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
"That counts for a lot in Washington," Krepinevich said. "You want to have that kind of relationship between the commander in chief and the Defense secretary."
Hagel's party affiliation may also defuse some criticism from Republicans when the inevitable cuts come to the military's budget, Krepinevich said. Ultimately, Hagel's success, or lack of it, will come from his ability to help develop a national defense strategy, find the resources to implement it and placate competing constituencies at the Pentagon.
Hagel's tenure is likely to be defined by withdrawing 66,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan, dealing with China's rising military might and containing Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"One outstanding issue about him: does he have the requisite management skills?" Krepinevich said.
Whether Obama picked Hagel, Flournoy or Carter, it wouldn't matter, said John Pike, executive director of Globalpolicy.org, a defense policy group. One is as good as another to lead the Pentagon, he said.
"The building is too big for one person to make much of a difference," Pike said. "They're not hiring him for his bright ideas, his creativity. It will be more of the same."