Chuck Hagel Confirmed: 5 Biggest Challenges He'll Face in the Coming Months


After a bitter fight against Republicans, Chuck Hagel has become America’s 24th Secretary of Defense. Despite tough opposition from Republicans, Hagel’s policies should not be painted as progressive. We should not expect to see the relative advances in gender equality and the long overdue (and incomplete) addressing of sexual violence that Leon Panetta’s office put forward, but rather generally conservative, classically realist defense policies. Here, in no particular order, are five issues Hagel will be facing in the coming months.

1. Defense cuts

This week, Hagel himself warned that upcoming cuts in military spending were among the biggest challenges the Defense Department will be facing. Sequestration is looking to cut $46 billion from the Pentagon’s budget over the next seven months. These cuts are compounded by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which would cut $487 billion over the next ten years. To further complicate matters, Congress has failed to approve a defense budget for the current fiscal year. According to Marine Corp General James Amos, such budget issues will create “unacceptable levels of risk.” 

Indeed, Hagel has a balancing act in front of him. Lucky for him, even with sequestration he’ll have a budget of well over $500 billion dollars per year for the next ten years, which is still more than the combined defense budgets of China, Japan, the U.K., France, and Russia.

2. Drawing down Afghanistan

During his State of the Union address, President Obama made clear his intentions to end the war in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Despite the draw down and supposed end of the war, German Minister of Defense Thomas de Maiziere let slip that up to 10,000 U.S. troops would remain after 2015. Then, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the figures were inaccurate and that 8,000 to 12,000 NATO troops, not strictly U.S. troops, will remain.

It’s clear Hagel has his work cut out for him in Afghanistan. Tensions with Afghan president Hamid Karzai are high, especially following the expulsion of U.S. special forces from Maidan Wardak province after they were accused of torturing and executing nine disappeared civilians. Hagel’s comments about India using Afghanistan as a second front against Pakistan have politicians and analysts in the world’s largest democracy and gone against a stated U.S. policy of encouraging India’s role in Afghanistan. Such dissonance highlights the far-reaching complexity of the situation in Afghanistan.

3. The drone war

Drone strikes will be a major part of Hagel’s agenda for foreseeable future. While his opposition to neoconservative military expansionism would lead one to believe he opposes President Obama’s drone program, Hagel has extolled the virtues of drone strikes, calling them a “smart, wise application” of force.

With drone strikes in Pakistan killing between 400 to 800 civilians and injuring over a thousand more, a major study recently reported that 74% of the population considers America an enemy. In Yemen, drone strikes have killed close to 200 civilians and the program is expanding to Somalia and the Philippines. While the drone program is largely tied to the CIA, “drones have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants” meaning it will have serious repercussions for the Department of Defense.

4. Expansion of war in Africa

During his State of the Union address, President Obama noted that "different Al-Qaida affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa.” This statement and Hagel’s rhetoric of “leading with allies,” fits comfortably with recent U.S. support for the French intervention in Mali. As mission creep sets in, the U.S. is expanding its presences in West Africa and sending troops to Niger in order to establish a drone base. These issues, along with the influx of arms from post-conflict Libya mean that the Sahel will be on Hagel’s agenda for a long time to come.

5. Cyber security

Not long before leaving office, Leon Panetta warned of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” that involved launching “several attacks on our critical infrastructure at one time, in combination with a physical attack. He was speaking in response to attacks on American financial institutes originating in China, Russia, Iran, and from militant groups across the globe.

Cyber security may well be the biggest current threat to American security. Cyber attacks linked to China are rampant and recent conferences on the topic are saturated with Cold War terminology such as “extended deterrence.” Though the Pentagon “is constantly looking to recruit, train and retain world class cyberpersonnel,” waging cyber war is difficult. As was made clear in the Kosovo conflict, launching cyber attacks “shows your hand” and potentially leads to a loss in technological advantage. Negotiating the complexities of cyber security is sure to keep Hagel busy.