Secretary Hagel: Credit where credit is due

I must admit, I had little or no confidence that Chuck Hagel would make a worthwhile Secretary of Defense.  I regarded him as completely unqualified for the position, a political hack appointed to provide some allegedly bipartisan ‘cover’ to the Obama administration, yet be a dispensable ‘useful idiot’, someone who could be dropped like a hot potato if political blame had to be apportioned.

I may have to eat my words.  Secretary Hagel’s done two things (so far) that are absolutely the right thing.  First, he killed the ‘drone medal’, that contemptible chair-warmers’ chest tinsel that by its very existence demeaned and degraded actual combat awards.  Now he’s warning the defense establishment that it must face up to reality – or else.  Military Times reports:

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has launched a sweeping review of the military’s personnel structure, including the ratio of officers to enlisted, the balance between active and reserve components and the mix of troops to civilian support staffs.

In his first major speech since taking office in February, Hagel signaled a shift in the Pentagon’s approach to this year’s budget crunch and for the first time publicly outlined his priorities for the changes that are likely to occur under his watch.

. . .

“We cannot simply wish or hope our way to carrying out a responsible national security strategy and its implementation. The department must understand the challenges and uncertainties, plan for the risks, and, yes, recognize the opportunities inherent in budget constraints and more efficient and effective restructuring.”

. . .

“Left unchecked, spiraling costs to sustain existing structures and institutions, provide benefits to personnel, and develop replacements for aging weapons platforms will eventually crowd out spending on procurement, operations and readiness — the budget categories that enable the military to be and stay prepared,” Hagel said.

Hagel suggested that the number of troops in the force is not the only personnel question on the table. “The size and shape of the force needs to be constantly re-assessed, to include the balance between active and reserve, the mix of conventional and unconventional capabilities, general purpose and special operations units, and the appropriate balance between forward stationed, rotationally deployed, and home-based forces,” Hagel said.

He noted that the officer corps has grown steadily in proportion to the military’s overall size.

“Today the operational forces of the military — measured in battalions, ships, and aircraft wings — have shrunk dramatically since the Cold War era. Yet the three- and four-star command and support structures sitting atop these smaller fighting forces have stayed intact, with minor exceptions, and in some cases they are actually increasing in size and rank,” Hagel said.

There’s more at the link.  Bold print is my emphasis.

I’ve long been concerned about ‘bloat’ in senior military ranks.  It’s amazing how ‘jobs for the boys’ has become an unwritten, unspoken mantra for General and Flag officers in all services.  To cite just one particularly egregious example, most Wings in the US Air Force used to be headed by Colonels.  That changed a couple of decades ago.  Most now appear to be commanded by Brigadier-Generals.  These organizations generally haven’t been given additional personnel, or aircraft, or responsibilities – so why do they need a more senior officer to lead them?  The simple answer, of course, is that they don’t.  This change was made to open up more positions – and hence opportunities for promotion – for general officers.  There’s no reason whatsoever why the job can’t revert to Colonels . . . except that a large number of Brigadier-Generals would lose their posts as a result.  Can’t have that, you know!

I support Secretary Hagel 100% in his proposal to review the upper-level leadership structures of the US armed forces.  They’re bloated, inefficient, and far too concerned with political rather than operational matters.  I hope he’ll also take steps to curb the ‘revolving door’ policy whereby most senior officers retire from the military, only to take up very lucrative ‘consulting’ or ‘advisory’ or lobbying positions in (or on behalf of) the defense industry.  President Eisenhower’s warning about the ‘military-industrial complex‘ is as true today as it’s ever been, and these officers are perpetuating the problem.  I hope Secretary Hagel can find some way to restrict such practices.

At the same time, I hope the Secretary will take a sharp, heavy axe to the armed services’ procurement policies, practices and institutions.  There’s far too much waste, an appalling amount of inefficiency, and downright sloppiness in force planning and structure and the purchase of equipment.  The US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program is an excellent case in point, as is the US Air Force’s F-35 and the US Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle.  With so many problems, and so much mismanagement, why not scrap the whole procurement structure and start over?  Also, why not buy a heck of a lot more from our allies?  They’ve already developed perfectly workable solutions to many of the USA’s military requirements.  Why are we wasting billions of dollars reinventing the wheel?

I don’t yet know whether Secretary Hagel will prove to be a good man at the top of the Department of Defense . . . but I have to admit, in two cases at least, he’s making the right noises.  Here’s hoping!



  1. Good riddance to that POS medal… And I will watch with interest his attempts to knock some command ranks back…

  2. Oddly enough, my thoughts came from balancing the family budget when one salary was suddenly removed. I had hoped that someone would see something that we as family budgeters have to live with: "… recognize the opportunities inherent in budget constraints …"
    The Military is not quite the family budget, but the bottom line is actually the same, when the money is gone, the money is gone. We have to become creative and prudent on how we spend the rest.
    So far, so good. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

  3. Some of the "bloat" in ranks must be due to the "up or out" policies of the services. If a bunch of good Wing Commanders are approaching their time limits, and there are not nearly enough higher-level jobs to promote them into, what do you do? Promote them where they are, or lose them.There are a lot of hard decisions to be made. Let's hope they are made with thought and care.

  4. The unintended consequence of the "up or out" policy is that you end up pushing people directly into the "peter principal" zone.

    Also, humans have a personal "success level" that limits them. I suspect that promoting someone beyond this line will cause them to fail, sometimes spectacularly.

    I'm unsure if the two factors are connected.

    Seems like the services (and to some extent the civilian side) expect everyone to aspire to be the top commander, and any time someone declines a promotion of some sort, decide that they are unworthy of remaining with the organization.
    The mindset that drives this sort of perspective may be counter to the organization's best results.

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