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Here’s Why Cutting 20 Percent of Hagel’s Staff Is a Bad Idea

Secretary of Defense Hagel has implemented an across-the-board 20 percent budget cut at all military staff headquarters commands. But the Defense Department’s one-size-fits-all budget cut appears to draw on erroneous assumptions to resourcing that have plagued the military for several years. 

The idea came in response to the sequestration cuts of the Budget Control Act of 2011 and acting on the recommendation of the Strategic Choices and Management Review. But it seems uninformed by current resource problems existing across the staff headquarters, and will lead to negative unintended consequences for DOD’s fiscally responsible “innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint” approaches to national security.

First, many government officials share the common view that DOD staffs are bloated. Clearly, in 2011, Chuck Hagel, before he became defense secretary, contributed to this view when he described the department during an interview with the Financial Times as…well…“bloated.” While areas of excessive growth do exist, this is certainly not the case across the board. According to the Government Accountability Office last year, the authorized staff sizes of geographical combatant commands during the last decade remained almost unchanged (excepting the establishment of NORTHCOM and AFRICOM in 2003 and 2008 respectively, and CENTCOM which has managed two wars and fallout from the Arab Spring). Furthermore, cost increases at those staff headquarters from 2007 to 2012 were primarily due to contract services and the conversion of military and contractor jobs to civilian positions — costs partially offset by savings in military manpower.

Second, there is a common desire to lump all of the service branches into one as if they are a singular amorphous institution where resources are spread evenly. However, the same GAO report found that Army service commands constituted 85 percent of the increase in authorized staff positions from 2008 to 2012, and accounted for over half the increased budget costs from 2007 to 2012. With the majority of growth at Army service commands, it is a reasonable to premise that other service commands have seen little or no growth. By opting for the simplistic one-size-fits-all budget cut, the DOD will inevitably leave some staffs significantly resource-constrained.

Indeed, for the inappreciable savings of less than one-tenth of one percent off the defense budget, Hagel’s proposed staff cut introduces untold risk to national security. On staffs that have successfully incorporated DOD’s “innovative, low-cost and small-footprint” approaches, the 20 percent cut will result in a decline in capacity-building activities — activities that have drastically curtailed the drug trade from South America and have enabled our African partners to confront growing extremism. These staffs rely heavily on partner-nation coordination and small force structures to build partner security capacity that achieves mutual security objectives. In short, through uninformed cuts that achieve negligible savings, we risk trading “innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint” approaches for “traditional, expensive, large-force” operations in the future.

DOD’s one-size-fits-all approach to staff budget cuts is a disconcerting start to what should be a responsible and comprehensive defense budget plan, and Defense Department officials should act quickly to stop its implementation. The three-month crisis project known as Strategic Choices and Management Review – the “skimmer” – must be replaced with a new, detailed and independent analysis of DOD spending to assist in right-sizing staffs to mission requirements. Following the approved defense budget request and an updated Quadrennial Defense Review, DOD should look to independent commissions, to include military and private-sector experts in human resource and organizational structure, to provide unbiased and tailored recommendations. Through a smarter approach to budget cuts, the Defense Department can realize budget reductions without sacrificing national security.

U.S. Navy Cmdr. Robert Ogden is a military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Most recently, he was a plans officer at the Republic of Korea–United States Combined Forces Command in Seoul.