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Editorial: Hagel delivers the details; Congress must act on them

Aug. 5, 2013 - 06:40AM   |  
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For two years, senior Pentagon leaders have repeatedly told Congress that piling on another $500 billion in automatic, inflexible cuts over the next decade — on top of $487 million in cuts already made to the 10-year plan — would devastate military capabilities.

For the same two years, lawmakers have balked at allowing the Pentagon flexibility to make cuts more thoughtfully. Pentagon leaders are exaggerating, some insisted; others demanded more details.

Now the details are in.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel detailed last week the results of his Strategic Choices and Management Review: The Defense Department can either accept a far smaller force equipped with more modern weapons that won’t be able to take on as many missions, or a larger force that relies on existing equipment, much of which is nearing the end of its usefulness.

It cannot have both.

Either way, Hagel said, America’s military will be smaller by tens of thousands of troops, and their pay and benefits, which have grown considerably over the past decade-plus of war, will have to be reduced.

The review calls for capping future pay raises below civilian wage growth, having service members start to pay part of their off-base housing costs and limiting military health care for working-age retirees under 65.

And even then, near-term savings total only about $15 billion out of the $50 billion DoD needs to save annually, because personnel cuts and compensation reforms won’t deliver significant savings until a number of years down the road.

That means the balance will come out of near-term readiness, acquisition, and research and development.

It’s not that more cannot be cut from defense over the long term, Hagel said; it’s that without near-term flexibility and time to plan, most of the budget is already locked up and committed.

Congress, which abdicated its basic responsibility to prioritize tough spending decisions in favor of the mindlessness of sequestration, wants to have it both ways. Lawmakers demand heavy cuts, but when details emerge, they inevitably object.

It’s been this way for years. DoD wants to close more bases; Congress says no. DoD wants to raise Tricare fees; Congress says no. DoD wants to retire some older aircraft that it no longer wants or needs; Congress says no. DoD furloughs civilians; Congress introduces legislation barring further furloughs — even though doing so will likely result in layoffs.

It’s as if DoD is being asked to bear the heavy yoke of sequestration with both hands tied behind its back and its legs in ankle irons.

Hagel has met the challenge head on, sensibly reviewing the options and sharing the results in brutal, unsparing detail.

As he put it in announcing the broad outlines of his review: “A sequester-level scenario would compel us to consider these changes because there would be no realistic alternative that did not pose unacceptable risk to national security.”

Now it’s up to Congress to face facts and either undo sequestration with a broad budget deal or provide Hagel with the flexibility to draw down the world’s finest, battle-seasoned military with a balanced approach to people, training and equipment.

Mindlessly cutting all three will hollow our military, put our industrial base at risk, jeopardize lives and undermine U.S. credibility abroad.

Those are options America cannot afford.

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