By THOM SHANKER
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has traditionally managed rivalries among services by giving each more or less equal shares of the base military budget.
Today, under pressure from the threat of nearly $1 trillion in forced spending reductions, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the days of automatic, equitable allotment to the Army, Air Force and Navy may be over.
“We’re challenging every past assumption, every past formula,” Mr. Hagel said in an interview.
In recent weeks, Mr. Hagel has filled his calendar with an accelerated series of meetings with the service secretaries and Joint Chiefs, and with the global combatant commanders. He is requiring them to explain — and defend — how they contribute to security against current global threats, with the Army viewed as most at risk of even steeper cuts.
The White House and Congress are racing to meet another deadline to finish a budget plan that is almost certain to cut military spending even as the services struggle to train and equip a fighting force after an exhausting decade-plus of war.
Anticipating more reductions, Mr. Hagel described a strategy to build a Pentagon budget that rationally apportions less money to defend against new threats and that is no longer defined by the wars since Sept. 11, 2001.
Mr. Hagel said he was assessing whether there were savings in relying more on the National Guard and Reserves than on the active-duty armed forces. Such a rebalancing would be popular with governors and their friends in Congress because it would shift personnel and resources to the states. The active-duty military is against it.
As negotiations tentatively move ahead, many have said it is risky for the defense secretary to push forward with reductions in personnel costs and benefits, in particular health care. While those expenses consume roughly half the Pentagon budget, they are jealously defended on Capitol Hill and by military and veterans’ groups.
Mr. Hagel is undeterred. “I think we have to keep coming at it,” he said. “It’s such an immediate and looming issue. I believe we can handle this, and we can deal with it responsibly, without hurting anybody to any great extent.”
Mr. Hagel inherited budget cuts of $487 billion over a decade, and is now faced with the threat of sequestration cuts of an additional $500 billion over 10 years.
The across-the-board spending cuts under sequestration are bad enough, since they imposed steep reductions in Pentagon budgets without giving the department’s leadership flexibility to spend what remained as they see best. Then the government shut down for 16 days as budget talks collapsed, which Mr. Hagel said “sent a terrible message to our allies and our adversaries.”
“In fact, I think it was a destructive message,” he said. “Those who want to say that America is on the back side of history and the days of power and glory are gone — this plays right into their hands, because this sends a message that we can’t even govern ourselves.”
These days, Mr. Hagel is on the phone regularly with members of Congress, and he has another breakfast with the Capitol Hill leadership this week.
He has also summoned the senior four-star officers from all services twice in the past several weeks (previously, they usually gathered only four times a year). And he will lead the Defense Department’s top officials to the White House next week to discuss budgets, readiness and risk with President Obama, according to senior Pentagon officials.
Atop Mr. Hagel’s list of concerns is military readiness. He acknowledges that this is a tough concept to sell to the American people, since a military that is not ready to fight is not an obvious problem until it is too late. And he is wary of seeming alarmist.
“I don’t think you get through on that point or fix it by screaming louder than anyone else,” Mr. Hagel said. So, he said, he has begun a behind-the-scenes education effort, even as he went out of his way to say that, as defense secretary, it would be improper to engage in a formal lobbying campaign.
The Pentagon’s spending priority remains providing support for American specialties in new arenas of combat: computer-network warfare, space, Special Operations and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, Mr. Hagel said. Those capabilities are not the same as fighting grinding ground conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, which demanded counterinsurgency skills, he said.
“The Army was the principal institution fighting those two wars, as the armies normally are in land wars,” Mr. Hagel said. “So as those requirements have come down, there’s going to be an adjustment.”
That view is driving a new look at the Pentagon’s traditional, even distribution of funds.
“I don’t think you can just make easy, simple assertions based on simple formulas — a third, a third, a third,” he said. “That might turn out to be just about right, but it may not.”