WASHINGTON - In his first major policy address, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the military needs to make fundamental changes in the way it operates to cope with new fiscal realities.
Noting that the military has "grown enormously more expensive in every way" over the past decade, he said the Pentagon will have to tackle soaring personnel costs and re-examine how it buys billion-dollar weapons systems as it shrinks the size of the armed forces in the coming years.
Hagel's two most recent predecessors, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, made similar vows as they tried to tame the vast military bureaucracy. Neither had much success, struggling to persuade Congress to cut pet projects or scale back health and pension benefits for future generations of military personnel.
In the past, military leaders had assumed lawmakers would always find a way to soften the blow when it came to reductions. But the automatic spending cuts that were triggered last month have made that outcome less likely; Congress and the White House have shown little inclination to spare the Pentagon.
"A combination of fiscal pressures and a gridlocked political process has led to far more abrupt and deeper reductions than were planned," said Hagel, who took over as defense secretary in February. "We cannot simply wish or hope our way to carrying out a responsible national security strategy."
Unlike Panetta, who regularly predicted that a failure by Congress and the White House to exempt the military from automatic cuts would result in "doomsday" scenarios, Hagel spoke in a more resigned and pragmatic tone.
"The United States military remains an essential tool of American power but one that must be used judiciously, with a keen appreciation of its limits," he said.
Thomas Donnelly, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said President Barack Obama specifically selected Hagel to run the Department of Defense so he could be "the frontman" for trimming the budget.
"This is the next step, putting the Pentagon on notice that they intend to make more serious and very substantial cuts," Donnelly said.
Hagel said the biggest challenge facing the Pentagon is not its shrinking budget overall but that disproportionately large amounts of it are being consumed by unaffordable weapons systems, as well as health care, troop pay and retirement benefits.
Gates warned of the same problems. Although he managed to kill a number of expensive weapons programs, he failed to persuade Congress to rein in troop compensation levels or health care costs.
On Wednesday, Hagel alluded to the inherent difficulty in overhauling military operations and the budget. He said the Pentagon needs to examine some basic questions about its operations, including whether it has too many uniformed personnel doing administrative jobs that civilians could do just as easily - and more cheaply.
"It could turn out that making dramatic changes in each of these areas could prove unwise, untenable or politically impossible," he said. "Yet we have no choice but to take a very close look."
Hagel also said "the size and shape" of the armed forces needs to be scrutinized again, a hint that the Army and Marine Corps could face further troop reductions.