The Pentagon’s illusion of choice: Hagel’s 2 options are really 1

DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel visits troops at an undisclosed location in South East Asia, April 25, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • The military is set to become both smaller and less modern in course of this defense drawdown

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  • The prospect of a decade-long “modernization holiday” is not a distant possibility, but an unfortunate reality

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  • The Pentagon will not have the ability to choose the lesser of two evils

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Yesterday at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel unveiled the results of his Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR). The belated effort sought to think through the options — many unsavory — available to the military should sequestration and its $500 billion defense budget cuts remain law for the rest of the decade.

Secretary Hagel’s cafeteria menu of options for policymakers should sequestration continue is so unpalatable because this is not the first round of defense budget cuts. Sequestration’s $500 billion in Pentagon reductions come on top of the close to $1 trillion in military spending cuts already enacted under the Obama administration.

The bottom line of the Pentagon’s review: Secretary Hagel says the choice will be between a smaller and modern military or a bigger and older one. The harsh truth is that the result of sequestration will actually entail both: The US military is set to become both smaller and less modern in course of this defense drawdown. Readiness continues to fall under all options and scenarios, as well.

The tab is simply too big and Congress (unfortunately) too unlikely to approve needed compensation and infrastructure changes to actually allow the Pentagon to strategically choose its future under sequestration.

No one can now claim ignorance as these consequences unfold: The active Army is set to decline from its already reduced planned end strength of 490,000 to somewhere between 380,000 and 450,000 soldiers. As the active Marine Corps is falling to 182,000 from a peak of over 202,000, it too will be further reduced to between 150,000 and 175,000 Marines.

Nor will the other services escape pain under the all-in scenario of smaller, less modern, and unready forces. Secretary Hagel outlined potential cuts of two to three carrier strike groups and the retirement of all Air Force B-1 bombers. With much attention focused understandably on the Army, the Air Force is a silent bill payer that stands to lose up to eight tactical fighter squadrons and 46 C-130s in a worst-case outcome. This means airmen will take significant risk if called upon to conduct simultaneous operations around the world — a demand signal the Air Force meets on a near daily basis because of unyielding global requirements.

The unfortunate reality is that the outcome under Hagel’s second sequestration scenario — where the Pentagon maintains people but forgoes modernization — is likely with any additional defense cuts. The modernization accounts have been the favored pot of money to raid for the past four years. This makes the prospect of a decade-long “modernization holiday” not a distant possibility but rather an unfortunate reality.

This should be particularly worrisome to policymakers. As the secretary highlighted: “The military could find its equipment and weapons systems — many of which are already near the end of their service lives — less effective against more technologically advanced adversaries.” Pile on the harmful impact to the small and medium-sized businesses that supply the major defense contractors and contracting defense industrial base, and innovation and R&D will be harmed going forward.

Neither of Secretary Hagel’s sequestration options is particularly pleasant. What the president and Congress may not yet know is that the Pentagon will not have the ability to choose the lesser of two evils. The military will have to get smaller and forgo modernization with any additional defense budget reductions.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

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About the Author


  • Mackenzie Eaglen has worked on defense issues in the U.S. Congress, both House and Senate, and at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the Joint Staff. She specializes in defense strategy, budget, military readiness and the defense industrial base. In 2010, Ms. Eaglen served as a staff member of the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission established to assess the Pentagon's major defense strategy. A prolific writer on defense related issues, she has also testified before Congress.


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