Before he took charge of the U.S. Defense Department in February, Chuck Hagel had described the Pentagon as "bloated." Earlier this month, the Vietnam veteran and former Republican senator from Nebraska detailed plans to trim $1 billion from his office over five years to begin reigning in the military's massive bureaucracy. The move was more symbolic than substantive, as the defense budget proposed for this year alone is more than $600 billion -- bigger than the economy of Sweden. Hagel will undoubtedly oversee a downsizing of the military, driven by the end of the war in Afghanistan. But in almost a year on the job, he has yet to leave his mark on the institution or its finances, critics say. What's more, his seeming opposition to automatic budget cuts brokered in part by the Obama administration has left some wondering whether the onetime squad leader has fallen under the sway of the military's top brass.
If Hagel delays the reductions, "he's more a representative of the chiefs, not [of] the administration," Carl Conetta, director of the Center for International Policy's Project on Defense Alternatives, said in an interview with Military.com, referring to the generals who command the individual services.
From Sergeant to SecDef
Hagel, a proud Midwesterner, is the first former enlisted soldier to become the secretary of defense. He received two Purple Hearts for being wounded in Vietnam, where he bucked Army regulations and served alongside with his brother as a sergeant in the 9th Infantry Division.
Later entering politics, Hagel worked as a congressional staffer and lobbyist before joining Ronald Reagan's first president campaign, which led to his appointment as deputy administrator of the Department of Veterans Affairs. He quit in 1982 after concluding the VA was ignoring the harmful effects of Agent Orange.
After a stint in the private sector where he co-founded a company that became part of AT&T, Hagel in 1996 won a seat in the U.S. Senate. In the Senate, he again showed an independent streak.
He voted for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and then later became one of the war's most vocal critics. Hagel famously butted heads with his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., over the Bush administration's plans to send more troops to Iraq in 2007 in what became known as "the surge."
"This is an Army NCO versus a Navy officer," said Mark Jacobson, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund and a former adviser to retired Army Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus. "They're going to see the world differently."
Hagel had a shaky start to the job. Before his confirmation hearing, he was smeared as an anti-Semite for comments he had made about Israel's lobbying influence on Capitol Hill. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wondered if money Hagel earned from making speeches came from Saudi Arabia or North Korea.
Hagel's lackluster testimony didn't help.
Republican senators blocked Obama's nomination of Hagel and, for the first time in American history, led a filibuster to delay a president's pick for defense secretary. While Hagel ultimately got enough votes to be confirmed, he was surprised and hurt by the partisan attack.
In almost a year since, Hagel has tried to find his footing. He traveled abroad to meet with troops in Afghanistan and counterparts in the Middle East. He helped manage a budget shortfall of $37 billion as a result of automatic cuts, known as sequestration, while ordering a department-wide review of spending, known as the Strategic Choices and Management Review, or SCMR (pronounced "skimmer").
He also oversaw the extension of benefits to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. He pledged to reduce overhead costs by 20 percent.
But Hagel hasn't yet taken any radical steps toward tackling the Pentagon’s chronic acquisition problems as part of fixing the budget, Jacobson said. When asked for an example of Hagel making such a decision, he said, "I can't think of anything off the top of my head."
Maverick or Middleman?
Like that of other defense secretaries, Hagel's role is complicated by the unique political clout of the service leaders, who can also testify before Congress and, if necessary, publicize the missteps of the president or his appointees, Conetta said.
"The chiefs only have to raise an eyebrow and it can damage the administration," he said. "Chuck is a middleman. He needs to represent the chiefs' view if he's going to have a functional relationship with them."
Hagel seems to lack the charisma of his predecessor, Leon Panetta, the former CIA director and longtime Democratic congressman from California. He hasn't been as decisive as another, Robert Gates, also a former CIA chief who as secretary pushed to end production of Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-22 fighter jet, a stealthy, fifth-generation aircraft that wasn't needed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hagel has shown signs of independence -- and protectionism. When budget cuts forced him to order civilian personnel to take mandatory unpaid leaves of absence, known as furloughs, he reportedly halved the number of days workers would be affected, from 11 to 6, without notifying the White House.
He sided with the chiefs in resisting efforts to strip commanders of their authority to overturn a jury's findings. The proposal, partly designed to curb military sexual assault, is poised to pass Congress. He has also opposed the thrust of the 2011 deficit-reduction legislation, known as the Budget Control Act, establishing the automatic cuts, to preserve a bigger share of spending for the Pentagon.
He called the reductions "too fast, too much, too abrupt, and too irresponsible."
"He's been more captured by the system than Panetta ever was," said Franklin "Chuck" Spinney, a former analyst with the Pentagon's program analysis and evaluation office who now writes a defense newsletter called The Blaster. The department's strategy is "don't interrupt the money flow. Add to it," Spinney said, quoting legendary Air Force pilot and strategist Col. John Boyd.
Spinney predicts Hagel will continue spending on large weapons programs ("high-tech tinker toys") and special operations forces to justify smaller ground forces. He may be right. Hagel's strategic budget review recommended getting rid of some tactical aircraft squadrons and C-130s, but mostly called for trimming personnel costs, in a large part by downsizing the Army and Marine Corps.
Others say Hagel deserves more credit for attempting to slow such politically sensitive areas of defense spending such as basic pay, health care and pensions -- which together account for roughly half the Pentagon's budget. For the current fiscal year, Hagel agreed with proposals to boost Tricare premiums for working-age retirees and reducing the pay raise to 1 percent from 1.7 percent.
"He has taken on those issues," said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a research organization in Washington, D.C., who was former assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs and installations during the Reagan administration.
Hagel himself has warned that "if left unchecked, pay and benefits will continue to eat into our readiness and modernization." And with the last U.S. combat troops expected to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, marking an end to the 13-year war there, he will have more time to drill into some of the calcified elements of the Pentagon bureaucracy. Watch for signs of where the boring may begin next month, when the Pentagon releases its budget request for fiscal 2015.
"We're at the end of his first year," Jacobson said. "We're going to see what the [Hagel] budget looks like [in February]."