CHICAGO — U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Tuesday of painful trade-offs as the nation's military pivots from a 13-year war footing and comes under enormous budgetary constraints, saying there will have to be cuts to military pay, aging weapons systems and the size of the armed forces.
Hagel made the comments in a speech in Chicago aimed in large part at members of Congress who have demanded deep spending cuts while resisting the military's main proposals for making them, including the closure of bases that are popular with lawmakers and their constituents.
Hanging in the balance amid that tussle is not just America's military might, but also its global standing, Hagel said.
"Even as Congress has slashed our overall budget, they have so far proven unwilling to accept necessary reforms to curb growth in compensation costs and eliminate (the Department of Defense's) excess infrastructure and unneeded facilities," Hagel said.
In the metro-east, any suggestion of impending Pentagon cuts automatically raises concerns about the future of Scott Air Force Base, which employs 13,000 military and civilian workers and exerts a $3 billion-per-year impact on the St. Louis region.
Ellen Krohne, executive director of the Edwardsville-based Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, which is spearheading the effort to protect Scott, said her group is focused on finding "the things that are still growing in the military, and connect those to the missions at Scott today."
Krohne pointed out that military cyber-security programs continue to grow because "that's what the military of the future will be based on."
Ultimately, her group will focus its efforts on "finding those things that will help the military of the future in finding ways to make Scott attractive to those kind of missions," Krohne said.
Meanwhile, Scott supporters need to make "sure the base is as efficient and effective as it possibly can be," Krohne said, "and well-supported by the communtiy, so that it's got everything that's going for it today can continue, and we allow more to happen there."
Hagel's words during his speech Tuesday echoed those of military leaders who were on Capitol Hill Tuesday to tell Congress that they have done all they could to cut costs and it was now up to lawmakers to slow the growth of skyrocketing personnel pay and benefits. Senators expressed reservations about that as well as the Pentagon's efforts to cut the A-10 aircraft, which provides close air support for combat troops.
Hagel spoke in Chicago of the need to abandon those aircraft, which he argued cannot operate in the face of sophisticated air defenses. The same, he said, is true of the U-2 spy plane.
"Continuing to limp along with 50-year-old platforms, no matter how good they were or how effective they were, we don't have that luxury," he said. "We've got to build for the future. ... Congress has to be a partner with us."
Next-generation conventional military equipment is still important, Hagel said. But he added that the nation's security now also depends on new investment in cyber technology, unmanned weapons systems and international partnerships to counter what he called "shadowy" threats from irregular forces. Emphasizing the point, Hagel mentioned the crisis in Ukraine and a continued threat from terrorism.
The speech was Hagel's third on new strategic priorities as the U.S. military and its NATO allies move to end their combat role in Afghanistan by the end of the year.