The secretary of defense unveiled a new strategy for America's military on Wednesday, including walking back many of the responsibilities thrust on young troops on the front lines of America's decade at war.
Protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped America's military leaders into far more than mere combat commanders, Chuck Hagel said Wednesday afternoon. The Defense Department must recover from demands that "continually overload the circuits" to address future troop needs following a 2009 drawdown in Iraq and the end of the war in Afghanistan by 2014.
"You are diplomats, you are psychiatrists," he told the room full of students at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., including those from 66 other countries. He added mentors, referees, sewer commissioners and school board chairmen among the other requirements of troops whose front line battles includes building or refurbishing local infrastructure.
The Pentagon must work with other federal agencies, such as the departments of State and Homeland Security, to give back some of the labor requirements that have rested on the shoulders of America's warriors, he said.
"The military remains an essential tool of American power, but one that must be used judiciously with a keen understanding of its limits," Hagel said. It has grown more deployable, more expeditionary, more flexible, more lethal and more professional, but also significantly older. Funds that had been available to combat two wars abroad will dry up, forcing the department to become smaller and leaner against 21st century threats while addressing the concerns of disabled and retired veterans.
This comes at a time when the Pentagon plans to furlough civilian employees as it finds a way to cut $46 billion from its more than $500 billion budget due to sequestration. Hagel compared these fiscal challenges to those of social security, Medicare, and other unsustainable programs.
Paying for these benefits will be among the most costly facets of America's recent wars, totaling up to $6 trillion, according to a recent study.
He called for managing the defense budget by "not just tweaking or chipping away at existing structures and practices, but, where necessary, fashioning entirely new ones that are better suited to the 21st century realities and challenges."
"The military is not and ever should be run like a corporation," said Hagel, who spent more than a decade working in the private sector. "But that does not mean we don't have a great deal to learn from what the private sector has learned over the last 20 or 30 years."
Among these lessons are paring down middle management and empowering young leaders, he said.
Hagel plans to revisit the military's organizational structure to address a series of questions he outlined Wednesday. These include finding the right mix of civilian and military personnel, the balance between officers and enlisted troops, and "the appropriate distribution of troops performing combat, supportive and administrative duties."
"We need to stay steely eyed and clear headed in our analysis," he said, and explore "the full range of options."