By
The Last Word
updated 1/7/2013 8:19:17 PM ET 2013-01-08T01:19:17

If confirmed as Secretary of Defense, former Sen. Chuck Hagel will have to navigate significant budget cuts to defense in the coming years.

Despite the outcry following his nomination as Secretary of Defense, former Sen. Chuck Hagel has more to mull over than onerous confirmation hearings. Appointed in the midst of concluding wars and a cry for budget cuts, Hagel will oversee a department in transition.

The downsizing of the defense budget will come from two places: the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Budget Control Act of 2011.

War funding has hijacked the defense budget in the last decade. According to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the U.S. spent about $560 billion on the Pentagon’s ordinary activities in 2011, plus $159 billion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, totaling $718 billion. All told, that’s 20% of the national budget. And, as Brad Plummer over at Wonkblog notes, that doesn’t include $129 billion in veterans’ benefits.

America spends more on defense than the next 13 nations combined.

This swelling trend–which began with 9/11–will begin to slow its growth in the next few years, thanks in part to the winding down of our two wars. The Budget Control Act of 2011 will tighten the belt further with hard budget limits and a sequester poised to reduce Pentagon spending by $1 trillion over ten years. The still-unresolved sequester would be avoided if Washington lawmakers can agree on a less severe plan; either way, cuts will be made.

Congress and the Pentagon have already begun to navigate the waters of a smaller defense budget. The first plan proposed by the Pentagon last January suggested significant personnel cuts in favor of advanced special-ops weaponry (new bombers, spy tools, drones, etc.). Wired reported on the proposed downsizing of 100,000 soldiers, 80,000 from the Army and 20,000 from the Marines.

“It means drones for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert,” Wired’s Spencer Ackerman wrote.

The Pentagon’s appropriations proposal asked for a $613 billion budget. Congress intervened and bolstered that number to $631 billion, keeping in a few of the weapons systems the Obama administration wished to retire. They nonetheless agreed to the underlying premise of the Pentagon’s plan and agreed to reduce civilian and contractor personnel by 5% over ten years.

In the coming decade, further cutbacks will be necessary. DoD ingredients like aircraft inventory, ship count, missile defense, and active combat personnel will need to be rejiggered to fit new budgets. Wonkblog points to a report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments showing a variety of possible options.

These are the options Chuck Hagel will have to consider if he is confirmed as Secretary of Defense. A large part of the job will be to ensure that the department makes a smooth transition into a more austere future.

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