America rethinks its military

  @FortuneMagazine February 27, 2014: 7:14 AM ET
BAI17 chuck hagel

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel

(Fortune)

During World War II, U.S. Field Commander Omar Bradley was known as the "GI's General" for his quiet, unassuming demeanor and affinity for the common soldier. If Bradley was the "GI's General" perhaps Chuck Hagel should be dubbed the "Soldier's Secretary." Like Bradley, he is a Midwesterner with a gentle demeanor that belies battlefield toughness. Like the famously modest Bradley, he has maintained a low profile at DOD, taking time to learn its massive, organizational structure, building trust with both generals and soldiers, and plotting strategy to keep our defenses strong while his budget is tight.

I have known Secretary Hagel since his days as Nebraska's Senator. He has a history of putting country first, whether in the jungles of Vietnam, the halls of the Senate, or now, the Pentagon's E ring. A year into his tenure, he recently agreed to talk with me about tensions in Asia, budget cuts, rebalancing our defense priorities, and how running DOD is like a game of football. Our interview follows.

You've been in office a year now and already have been thrown some curve balls.

When I first got here, I needed to make some very quick assessments. Kim Jong-un started sending missiles up and threatening to wipe out the West Coast of the United States. Sequestration hit. I hadn't even been here a week.

Your proposed budget, some say, will bring our troop levels to the lowest since before World War II.

We chose to further reduce troop strength in every military service, active and reserve, to sustain our readiness and technological superiority, and to increase critical capabilities like Special Operations Forces and cyber-resources. The development and proliferation of more advanced military technologies by other nations mean that we are entering an era where American dominance can no longer be taken for granted.

You are also tackling military compensation.

Since 2001, military pay and benefits have risen about 40% more than the private sector. Our proposals were crafted to reform compensation in a fair, responsible, and sustainable way. No one serving our nation in uniform is overpaid for what they do for our country. But if we continue on the current course without making these modest adjustments now, the choices will only grow more difficult and painful down the road.

How worried are you that Hill politics will trump national security needs?

I think Congress understands that we must adapt, innovate, and make difficult decisions to ensure that our military remains ready and capable -- maintaining its technological edge over all potential adversaries. As Roosevelt's Secretary of War Henry Stimson once said, we must "act in the world as it is, and not in the world as we wish it were."

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