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OPINION: Hagel's shrinking defenses

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When he was asked in 2011 about the possible impact of the sequestration on defense, Chuck Hagel breezily replied that the Pentagon was "bloated" and "needs to be pared down." In his first major speech as defense secretary on Wednesday, Mr. Hagel's assessment was considerably more sober. The $41 billion cut the department is taking this year, he said, "is already having a disruptive and potentially damaging impact on the readiness of the force." He added that he would not "assume or tacitly accept" that "these cuts can be accommodated without a significant reduction in military capabilities."

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Still, Mr. Hagel is looking at the possibility of a major new drop in defense spending as an opportunity. The pressure of forced cuts, he said in his speech at the National Defense University, could help to "fundamentally reshape the defense enterprise to better reflect 21st-century realities." He is right, up to a point: There is plenty of waste in the Pentagon budget. But if Mr. Hagel is to push through the kind of change he is talking about, he will need far more cooperation from the Pentagon bureaucracy and Congress than President Obama's first two defense secretaries enjoyed. We wouldn't bet on it.

In his address, Mr. Hagel identified some broad areas for savings -- categories that come as no surprise to anyone who has studied recent defense budgets. Military pay and benefits and accelerating costs for weapons systems, Mr. Hagel said, are threatening to turn the Pentagon into "an agency administering benefit programs, capable of buying only limited quantities of irrelevant and overpriced equipment." The Tricare health program has grown in cost from $19 billion in fiscal 2001 to $53 billion in fiscal 2012, while the budget's biggest line item is the nearly $400 billion F-35 program, which is 70 percent over its initial cost estimate.

Like former Secretary Robert M. Gates, Mr. Hagel believes the Pentagon's "fourth estate" of officers and bureaucrats in the secretary of defense's office and combatant commands could be trimmed; that some jobs being performed by military personnel could be transferred to civilians; and that unneeded bases could be shut. The problem, of course, is persuading the services or Congress to accept such restructuring. Following his rocky confirmation process, it's hard to be optimistic about Mr. Hagel's chances of finding allies in a polarized Congress for eliminating National Guard depots or cutting benefits for veterans. As he himself put it, "it could turn out that making dramatic changes ... could prove unwise, untenable or politically impossible."

The danger here is not merely that Mr. Hagel will fail to accomplish far-reaching reform. It's that, having failed to do so, he will bring down spending with cuts that are more easily accomplished but far more damaging to national security. The Post's Craig Whitlock has reported that the Army and Marines are bracing themselves for possible force reductions going well beyond the trims of 9 and 10 percent previously ordered by Mr. Obama. The sequestration is already forcing worrisome reductions in training, the grounding of air fleets and the cancellation of ship deployments, not to mention a demoralizing furlough of civilian workers.

We wish Mr. Hagel luck in his effort to restructure the Pentagon. But we also hope that he and the president are working on a backup strategy to preserve vital U.S. defense functions.

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