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Hagel’s Strategic Choices Study Is Something Americans Need to See — Now

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DoD photo / Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, as his Strategic Choices study languishes at the Pentagon.

Pentagon leaders have been working for months on a process Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said will inform budget decisions should sequestration stay in place for the U.S. military next year (the top weapons buyer said Monday that it’s likely to continue).

The process, known as the Strategic Choices and Management Review, is apparently designed to “stress test” President Obama’s strategic guidance, from January 2012, calling for a pivot to Asia amid shrinking defense budgets.

The review is long overdue, given that sequestration — mandated budget cuts of roughly 10% — took effect more than three months ago. For that reason, Hagel should prepare to release some of its findings publicly. By keeping the budget-review findings secret, Hagel will instead allow speculation, rumors and select leaks to drive the debate.

Politicians on Capitol Hill still lack any clarity on the real-world consequences of continuing sequestration (it’s slated to last for nearly a decade under the Budget Control Act of 2011, unless Congress and the White House come up with a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction package for that timeframe, or change the law that imposes the sequester — neither of which appears imminent). Unfortunately, the less policymakers know about the pain of continued budget cuts on the military, the more likely it is to stay in place.

In a widely-leaked memo, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter outlined some revised outputs of the review. Adjustments include:

– Adding in “break points” for capacity, capability and readiness to the military missions outlined in the January 2012 strategic guidance.
– “Rapid turnaround adjustment” plans for U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific.
– And a white paper that outlines the options considered during the process and their strategic implications.

The military services are also directed to craft alternate budget plans for the next fiscal year that reflect a 10% sequestration cut from the President’s request. This analysis is supposed to include one scenario where cuts are implemented across the board (as is currently happening, more or less), and a second option if the Pentagon gets greater flexibility to shift funds among various accounts. In drafting alternate budget proposals, Carter also directed the services to adjust their plans to take into account current consequences of sequestration in fiscal year 2013.

Beyond next year’s budget, Carter charged the services with developing a set of alternative budget documents for 2015 that would reflect priorities under levels of funding both 5 and 10% less than the planned spending in the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2014 request.

Thus far, the Pentagon’s inability — and/or reluctance — to outline, in detail, the programmatic consequences of sequestration and their strategic ramifications means that the awareness has been limited to the abstract for voting members of Congress — barring individual anecdotes from their districts. A plan for how the military will absorb sequestration will provide political leaders with a tangible set of consequences if they fail to agree on a larger budget deal.

For example, the Pacific Command’s readjusted plans might show that a reduced naval fleet means the U.S. will be unable to carry out its regular maritime presence mission in East Asia. This would immediately call into question key military components of the Asia-Pacific rebalancing. This kind of basic information should be  public for policymakers so they can decide whether they want to help invalidate the pivot, or join the Pentagon in crafting a revised and scaled-back defense strategy.

Pentagon leaders need to communicate clearly to the American public — now — how sequestration will degrade the nation’s defenses and call into question public assumptions about what the U.S. military can do. Hagel can, and should, make select findings from the Strategic Choices and Management Review public and use it to launch a larger debate.

Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently asked Congress: “What do you want your military to do?”

Congress cannot answer this critical question until Dempsey and his fellow chiefs make clear the consequences of continued cuts to America’s defense strategy.

Those details need to be made part of the larger public debate. Only then can Congress knowingly decide on whether the nation is ready to accept military forces less engaged around the world, less ready to act when action is needed, and less capable when this, or a future President, orders them to move.

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