US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel plans to trim the US military to levels not seen in decades. The decision is a budget necessity, a reflection of modern warfare and a reflection of Chuck Hagel.
The first Pentagon budget under the tenure of US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is "an opening shot," says Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank specializing in US defense policy, planning and budgets.
That shot was aimed at a US Congress which had tied Hagel's hands. Budget wrangling generally, and the Bipartisan Budget Agreement of 2013 in particular, made cuts to the US military inevitable. The Pentagon in 2014 has $496 billion (360 billion euros) at its disposal, or "$31 billion below what the president requested," Hagel noted during his speech.
No one, Gunzinger says, likes cuts to "current readiness and modernization programs which will reduce future readiness." The same members of Congress who forced Hagel to act, in other words, just don't want him to do so in a way which hurts their own districts or states or which weakens perceptions of US military might.
If Congress passes Hagel's plan in the future without providing supplemental funding, the 2015 Pentagon plan implies just that.
A Hagelian budget
The plan's most controversial aspect - that active-duty members of the armed services are to drop from 520,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000 - will, Hagel says, "help ensure the Army remains well-trained and clearly superior in arms and equipment." It's a statement which can be read in terms of Hagel's personal experience in war.
"Because he served as an infantryman - not an officer, he was right there in the trenches - he has a point of view other people don't have," said Charlyne Berens, who has written the only biography to date on Chuck Hagel and is the current associate dean at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Hagel served as an infantryman in Vietnam with his brother, making him the first US defense secretary in history to have been enlisted as a combat soldier.
Rather than coming up with something that that sounds "lovely politically," she told DW, he tends to opt for battleground preparedness.
"He told me that when he was in the Senate, and they'd be considering any kind of military legislation, he'd say, 'We have to understand that these are real people we're talking about and real lives that are being affected. It's not some textbook, sanitized version of conflict. It has real consequences.'"
Europe to the rescue?
According to Gunzinger, "There are some hints in Hagel's announcement that the Defense Department is serious about pursuing new technologies such as unmanned systems and cyber capabilities." He also hopes to see the department expand in its upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review report on what he calls its "crown jewels:" special operations forces, cyber and space capabilities, long-range stealth strike systems, underseas warfare and directed energy weapons such as high-powered lasers.
Hagel's plan retires the A-10 and B-2, but the increasingly expensive F-35 remains a Pentagon priority
Hagel will likely also prioritize a military rebalance in the Asia-Pacific region and a stable military posture in the Middle East.
And while the US is urging Europe to modernize its military capabilities and prepare to contribute more in out-of-region contingency operations, it is not a question of Europe simply filling in the gap in the future, Gunzinger says.
"I don't see the US military reducing their planned investments in the hope that Europe will play a larger role in maintaining stability in critical regions such as the Middle East and western Pacific."