Full plate awaits next Secretary of Defense

President Barack Obama in 2009 with Nebraskan Chuck Hagel, co-chairman of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board.


Leaving Afghanistan

The United States is tentatively slated to pull its combat troops out of Afghanistan in 2014, possibly after that country elects a new president.

That plan has taken heat from both the right and left, as some wonder why the United States doesn't leave sooner and as others criticize the Obama administration and the Pentagon for the lack of a coherent strategy during the war's final years.

Those critics have included Hagel, who said at a NATO conference earlier this year that after a dozen years in Afghanistan, “we're not sure what our mission is.”

If named to the Cabinet, Hagel will lead a pullout that is fraught with difficult questions.

Can the coalition forces stop insider attacks? Afghan police and soldiers — ostensibly allied with their U.S. and coalition trainers — killed nearly 60 American troops last year.

Are the Afghan military and police, who have been trained by coalition forces, strong enough to protect the central government from insurgents?

And, finally, how does the United States best ensure that Afghanistan doesn't fall into a civil war after 2014?

Defense budget

If picked, Hagel would have to lead the Department of Defense during a time of relative austerity for the U.S. military.

Defense already took one cut last year, when the Obama administration pledged to slice nearly $500 billion from previously projected spending in the coming decade. And the specter of so-called sequestration — another defense cut of around $500billion — looms if Congress can't come to agreement on further tax increases or other spending cuts.

No matter what happens, the department can't exactly plead poverty. Michael O'Hanlon, a military budget expert at the Brookings Institution, points out that in 2013 the United States still will outspend China roughly 3-to-1. For every $10 spent globally on defense spending, he says, four of those dollars will be spent by the United States.

But there's no denying that, at the very least, U.S. military spending — and likely the size of the U.S. armed forces — will shrink at least a little following a post-9/11 decade when military spending ballooned.

This will happen even as the United States continues to deal with foreign policy threats such as Iran, North Korea and terrorist organizations.

Cyberspace

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” and has suggested that computer hackers working for a foreign government or terrorist group could derail U.S. passenger trains, contaminate water supplies in major cities or shut down the power grid.

Two of the country's largest defense contractors — Lockheed Martin and Booz Allen Hamilton — have lost staggering amounts of data and proprietary information to hackers, Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, told an Omaha conference in November 2011.

The United States loses $1 trillion annually to hackers — many of whom he said are employed by rival nations.

Cyberspace is the wild and danger-filled new frontier of modern warfare, a frontier where Chinese and Russian hackers are known for being willing and able to steal, pillage and plunder.

The next U.S. secretary of defense likely will advocate for new and stricter cybersecurity laws. An effort last year to tighten those laws, which was championed by Panetta, died in Congress.

Hagel, if picked, also would have a hand in designing when and how the United States can retaliate or attack its enemies in cyberspace.

The United States has serious and shadowy experience in cyberoffense, according to international experts. The U.S. military allegedly helped design a cyberworm that burrowed into Iran's nuclear program and crippled it in 2010.

Last year, the world learned of Flame, a computer virus that stole emails and passwords from top Iranian officials and is now known as the most sophisticated such virus of all time. The United States and Israel are suspects in that cyber-attack, as well.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1064, matthew.hansen@owh.com

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