Hagel to Face Huge Budget Cuts, Strategic Shift at Post-War Pentagon

If confirmed, the former soldier, CEO, and senator will have to draw on all of his varied work experience, experts say.

Chuck Hagel enjoys a laugh with former President Bill Clinton as Hagel presents Clinton with the Atlantic Council's Distinguished International Leadership Award, April 28, 2010.

Former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel enjoys a laugh with former President Bill Clinton, April 28, 2010.

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The next secretary of defense will face mounting challenges that will define the United States for decades, defense experts say.

As DoD chief, Chuck Hagel would need to withdraw most U.S. troops from Afghanistan, completely rehash the military's presence in the Middle East and Asia and address growing and unforeseen threats—all while chopping hundreds of billions of dollars from the defense budget.

He will need to draw upon elements of his experience in the jungles of Vietnam, as CEO in the tech industry as well as his two terms as a U.S. Senator to successfully accomplish the task that could be set before him, according to experts.

"This is not a small menu of challenges, and all of these things are happening simultaneously," says Mark Gunzinger, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense. "He is walking into a set of issues that, frankly, is going to establish the course of the Department of Defense and our nation's military for possibly decades to come."

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Accommodating the White House policy requires playing a long game, Gunzinger says. President Barack Obama's "Pivot to Asia" will require restructuring how the U.S. Navy employs bases in the Pacific, for example. This involves consulting with allies and assessing current and potential basing locations—a perennial diplomatic sticking point with many allies.

The same is true for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan as the nation waits for the White House's decision on how many troops will be left behind after the draw down in 2014.

"They key is having a solid strategy and being able to focus your capability rebalancing efforts to achieve the objectives of that strategy," says Gunzinger, now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. "Absent of that, you're going to be throwing money at programs and that doesn't tend to work very well."

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Hagel will likely take a 'coalition' approach primarily based on partnerships and engagement, says Maren Leed, a former adviser to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno. He will also draw on his experience founding Vanguard Cellular Systems and subsequent business ventures to address the growing threat of national security, she says.

"[He has] a much discussed preference … for small-footprint approaches to defense problems, trying to do things through partners with small numbers of defense forces to address crises when they erupt," says Leed, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

His personable approach and experience as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam will also help him in the halls of the Pentagon, she adds.

"It will be interesting to see if Hagel develops relationships with senior enlisted advisers in ways that have been deeper than previous secretaries," Leed says. "He is the kind of person who would get along well with the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], but how he manages conversations about the Afghanistan drawdown will be a key test in the eyes of the military."

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"He has been through the military," says Gunzinger. "He has been through experiences many in the military have shared. That gives him credibility with uniform members that may not have existed with some previous secretaries that were more policy-oriented and not grounded in defense issues."

Much of criticisms of Hagel's policies, particularly toward Iran and Israel, will prove irrelevant if he assumes office, says Brian Fishman, counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation. Decisions regarding those countries, as well as unstable nations like Syria, will come from the White House, not the Pentagon.

Hagel's work experience—and his GOP pedigree—will pay off when dealing looming budget cuts, he says, following a Congressional mandate that the Pentagon find $487 billion to cut over the next decade.

"He's a budget hawk," says Fishman. "He's somebody who has embraced, at least, the concept of cutting the defense budget in the past."