The View From Olympus 15: Will the Real Chuck Hagel Please Come Forward?

Years ago, my old colleague Paul Weyrich said to me of then-Senator Chuck Hagel, whom he knew well, “He thinks about the Pentagon the same way you do.”

So far, there has been little sign of that from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. But a piece in the November 7 New York Times, “Cuts Have Hagel Weighing Realigned Military Budget,” suggests the real Chuck Hagel may be making his debut. The Times writes,


The Pentagon has traditionally managed rivalries among services by giving each more or less equal shares of the base military budget.

Today, under pressure from the threat of nearly $1 trillion in forced spending reductions, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the days of automatic, equitable allotment to the Army, Air Force and Navy may be over.

“We’re challenging every past assumption, every past formula,” Mr. Hagel said in an interview.


Such assertions are frequently heard in Washington. Most often, the mountain brings forth a mouse. Minor rearrangements in the deck chairs are presented as major reforms, and business as usual goes on largely untroubled. That will probably be the case here as well.

But what if Secretary Hagel really means what he says? How might he go about challenging every past assumption and formula? He could start by facing a few basic facts the Pentagon does its best to ignore.

First, geography dictates the United States is a sea power, not a land power. Like Great Britain, we are essentially an island. We face no conventional military threat on either our northern or our southern land border, although we face a serious Fourth Generation threat to the south—against which our conventional land forces are entirely useless. In terms of potential threats from other states, all lie overseas.

This means that while we must maintain naval superiority, we have little need for land forces. Neither of our two armies, the United States Army and the U.S. Marine Corps, are strategic necessities. If both disappeared tomorrow in a large cloud of red ink, we would miss little beyond the Marine guards at our embassies. Militarily, the only capability we would lose would be that of waging land wars overseas—and losing them, as we have proven adept at doing.

In theory, both the Army and the Marine Corps might learn enough lessons from our recent defeats to be able to win in the future. But neither shows any interest in doing so. The senior leadership of the Marines is as intellectually dead as I have seen it in my forty years of working with the Corps. The Army’s situation appears even worse. Testifying recently on Capitol Hill, the Army’s Chief of Staff, General Odierno, in response to a question as to whether the lessons of recent counterinsurgency fighting would be lost as those from Vietnam were, in effect said yes. He replied that in his view, the Army should focus on “combined arms warfare,” which is milspeak for fighting formal battles against the armies of other states. Since land wars against other states are something which, in the face of Fourth Generation war, we should not fight—the losing states will often disintegrate, giving the Fourth Generation, our real enemy, another victory—General Odierno in effect said the Army will have no strategic utility. It will be knights on horseback facing an army of musketeers. We could save money and provide public entertainment by reducing it to a company of actual knights on horseback to tour around the country staging tournaments. Perhaps it could get a gig with Monty Python.

The Times also reported that “Mr. Hagel said he was assessing whether there were savings in relying more on the National Guard and Reserves than on the active-duty armed forces.” The easy answer is yes. A National Guardsman costs about one-third as much as an active-duty soldier.

But there is more than budgetary logic to turning to the Guard and Reserve. The Air Guard and Reserve almost always perform better than the regulars. They are more open to aircraft such as the A-10, the only airplane in our inventory that can effectively support troops on the ground (and which the Air Force is sending to the bone yard). It is hard to think the Air Guard and Reserve, whose members have real jobs in the real world, would be buying an airplane as defective in design as the F-35.

As to the ground Guard, it is far and away the most relevant force we have for Fourth Generation war. Being now 0-4 against Fourth Generation opponents overseas (Lebanon,Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan) and with both the Army and the Marine Corps committed to learning nothing from their failures, we are probably not going to fight the Fourth Generation overseas again. If we do, we will again lose.

The real Fourth Generation threat is here, on our own soil. It is a threat we must confront, and against which we dare not lose. It manifests itself as a myriad of loyalties to things other than the state: gangs, races and ethnic groups, religions (think Islam), ideologies, “causes,” and so on.

These are at present law enforcement challenges, and it is greatly to a state’s advantage to keep them in that category. If they can break out to the point where they present military threats, threats beyond what law enforcement can handle, they are well on the way to victory over the state.

When law enforcement needs reinforcement, the Guard is where it turns. It is where it should turn, because the deployment of the regular armed forces in support of law enforcement is problematic. It is problematic in terms of dangers to our liberties, in terms of public perception, and in terms of regular soldiers’ skills, which come down to killing people and destroying things. Those are activities the American public does not want to see on American soil.

The National Guard, in contrast, specializes in skills people need and want. The Guard is what rescues them in case of natural disaster. It usually works unarmed. It presents no threat, because it is made up of our own friends and neighbors. The skills Guardsmen carry over from civilian life are an asset to their work in the Guard, especially when their communities face emergencies. Fourth Generation war is above all a contest for legitimacy. Deployment of the Guard enhances the state’s legitimacy, while deployment of the active duty armed forces in domestic emergencies can easily work against it.

So, Mr. Secretary, the logic of the challenge of “every past assumption” waits to serve you. Other than Special Operations Forces, our two land armies represent little but large expense. The same is true for most of the active-duty Air Force. We still need a robust Navy, as islands always do. But beyond SOF, the future of our air and ground forces is to be found in the Reserve and Guard. They also happen to represent enormous budgetary savings compared to active duty forces. Strategy and budgetary pressures for once work in concordance. All you have to do is go with the logical flow. Will the real Chuck Hagel please come forward?