On Monday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is set to propose billions in budget cuts to the U.S. military, plus he'll suggest shrinking America's active-duty forces to levels not seen since World War II. Ironically, Hagel's proposal is exactly what the GOP feared would happen when he was nominated for defense secretary in 2012. Back then, his stance on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the size of the Pentagon thrilled progressives who were dubious about the military's staggering size — and it looks like Hagel is finally making good on his promises.
Though Hagel, like Robert Gates before him, is a Republican serving as a Democrat president's defense secretary, he's made no secret of his support for reducing the size of the Pentagon. His position on the military has long been at odds with that of his own political party. Back in 2011, Hagel told the Financial Times:
The Defense Department, I think in many ways has been bloated. So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down. I don’t think that our military has really looked at themselves strategically, critically, in a long, long time.
This was a significant comment from the man who would ultimately be nominated in, and win, a bitterly contentious Senate nomination battle for the role of Secretary of Defense in 2013. Republicans pulled out a lot of stops trying to stymie Hagel; John McCain was especially hard on his former friend over his opposition to the Iraq War surge, in a particularly prickly and personal manner. Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R.-S.C.) tried to tether the nomination to inane, irrelevant inquiries into Benghazi.
Now, years later, one of the pivotal issues for the future of the U.S. military is playing out exactly how Hagel's most ardent supporters and vehement critics hoped it would. His proposed Pentagon cuts are a striking about-face from the years of expansion in the Bush administration, but go even further: under the plan, the military would move down to 450,000 active duty troops, 120,000 less than there were in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Hagel is also proposing the elimination of a couple of older, rapidly-obsolete military technologies: the A-10 "tank killer" aircraft developed in the 1970s, and Cold War-era aircraft called the U-2.
But while the GOP is angling to prevent such reforms, Pentagon officials and Hagel are showing a unified front on the proposal, echoed by Navy Rear Admiral and Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby. According to the Washington Post:
He has worked hard with the services to ensure that we continue to stand for the defense of our national interests — that whatever budget priorities we establish, we do so in keeping with our defense strategy and with a strong commitment to the men and women in uniform and to their families. But he has also said that we have to face the realities of our time. We must be pragmatic. We can't escape tough choices. He and the chiefs are willing to make those choices.
Hagel's plan has reportedly been endorsed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but is full of heavy legislative lifts that may prove at odds not just for the GOP, but to conservative and ardently pro-military Democrats as well. For example, he's proposed freezes on military pay raises and increased fees for military health benefits, precisely the sort of spending-cut burdens that Congress is loathe to accept. As a rule, Congress is unwilling to be seen as placing any increased burden on our armed forces.
So watch out: The Hagel budget plan, and Congressional support for it, could go beyond merely an intricate legislative battle, and become a thorny political issue to watch as 2014 stretches onwards.