WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is preparing top-to-bottom changes, including a push to limit the growth of military pay, as it adjusts to steep budget cuts and the winding down of war in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday.
In a speech on U.S. defense priorities, Hagel said that as the Obama administration preserves the military’s strength it will make it a less prominent tool of foreign policy. That’s not a new goal but one Hagel said is more achievable now that the U.S. is ending more than a decade of foreign conflict and the public is weary of war.
He sketched a future focused on investments in space and cyber technologies, missile defense and a strategy that assumes the world will not soon resolve challenges posed by terrorism and “heavily armed” states like North Korea.
He advocated a more humble U.S. approach to foreign policy.
“We must also make a far better effort to understand how the world sees us, and why,” he said. “We must listen more.” Cautioning against national arrogance, the former Republican senator from Nebraska and Vietnam combat veteran said “the insidious disease of hubris can undo America’s great strengths. We also must not fall prey to hubris,” nor to the idea of American decline.
Hagel said that since he took office in February he has been intent on finding ways to adapt the nation’s defense priorities to the realities created by a rancorous budget debate in Washington that has undermined the Pentagon’s ability to plan ahead. He warned of the impasse’s dangers, including the prospect of nearly $500 billion in defense cuts over 10 years as a result of the forced budget reductions known as sequestration. And he noted that this would be in addition to $487 billion in cuts already in motion.
“These cuts are too fast, too abrupt and too irresponsible,” he said at a public forum on national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a centrist think tank. He cited a danger that the budget crisis “will cause an unnecessary, strategically unsound and dangerous degradation in military readiness and capability.”
But he also said Pentagon leaders are not assuming the government’s budget crisis will be resolved soon.
One possible consequence of continued impasse, he said, is that a larger part of the military will lose its combat edge. As a result, it may be inevitable that some forces will be less prepared to act — and that, he said, would mean that in a crisis the president would have fewer options for protecting the nation’s security interests.
“Just as overdependence on the military carries with it risks and consequences, letting our military strength atrophy would invite disaster,” he said.
As it seeks to adjust and adapt, the Pentagon has been rethinking not only its priorities but also its policies and practices, Hagel said.
“This will require significant change across every aspect of our defense enterprise,” he said.
In trying to strike a balance between military requirements and available resources, the Pentagon is going to reconsider its mix of active-duty and reserve forces as well as the mix of foreign-based and home-stationed troops, he said.
“In some cases we will make a shift, for example, by prioritizing a smaller, modern and capable military over a larger force with older equipment,” he said.
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