Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel donned his other hat as the Pentagon’s downsizer-in-chief on Wednesday, announcing his latest efforts to cut spending and personnel— this time, in his own office.
“With the Pentagon confronting historically steep and abrupt spending reductions after a decade of significant budget growth,” Hagel said at a press conference, “there is a clear need, and an opportunity, and I emphasize opportunity, to pare back overhead and streamline headquarters across the Department.”
About 2,400 military and civilian personnel work on Hagel’s staff, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; by fiscal year 2019, that number will drop to less than 2,200 personnel. The reductions are expected to save about $1 billion.
Considering the scale of cuts the Pentagon is facing — some $37 billion this year, and potentially a total of $500 billion if the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration remain on the books in the coming years — the cutbacks appear negligible. However, the fact that the Defense secretary is personally taking steps to reshape elite branches within the Pentagon’s labyrinth bureaucracy is notable, even in this era of fiscal austerity. These reductions are only a “first step,” Hagel stressed, in the department’s efforts to “realign defense spending to meet new fiscal realities and strategic priorities.”
The directive comes on the heels of Hagel’s order this summer that the Pentagon’s top brass plan for a 20 percent cut in their operating budgets— not just within his own office, but in the Joint Staff and Pentagon headquarters staff of each of the four armed services. Hagel on Wednesday announced his office will see widespread reorganization spanning not just staff but mission. The Pentagon’s policy shop, for instance, will eliminate some senior positions but prioritize operations in the Asia-Pacific region, and space and cyber capabilities. The office of Personnel and Readiness will “sharpen” its focus on force management and readiness, military health care, compensation and retirement reform, as the defense intelligence office plans how its mission and focus will evolve now that the era dominated by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is coming to a close. “All these decisions will not only result in a smaller and flatter OSD, but one that I believe will be better prepared for the serious and complex 21st century security challenges that we face as a Department and as a nation,” Hagel said.
With no deal to avert sequestration yet, Hagel is candid about the tea leaves for his department’s budget woes — many of which, such as military retirement benefits and base closures — are potential political landmines on Capitol Hill. “Difficult but necessary choices remain ahead for the Department on compensation reform, force structure, acquisitions and other major parts of DoD,” he said. “These choices will be much more difficult if Congress fails to halt sequestration and fully fund the President’s budget request.”
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