By THOM SHANKER
WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel is looking for a few good ideas.
Faced with the most stringent Pentagon budget in at least a generation, the secretary of defense had ordered a four-month review to define options for balancing strategy against solvency. As he disclosed the results on Wednesday, Mr. Hagel was certainly aware of a Washington axiom: Never let a crisis go to waste, since tough times provide opportunities to accomplish things that were thought impossible.
But can the need to cut spending be used to create a smaller but smarter military by challenging expensive orthodoxies that still hold sway two decades after the cold war ended and a decade after Sept. 11? Or is this simply an exercise in managing a shrinking budget?
While it may be too soon to answer those questions, several significant proposals emerged from the review.
First, the Pentagon did not just touch the third rail of budget politics — compensation for military personnel and retirees — it leapt onto the tracks. Mr. Hagel said that tens of billions of dollars in savings could be found by limiting military and civilian pay raises, forcing retirees with second careers to use private health insurance, reducing housing allowances and lowering overseas cost-of-living adjustments. Without these changes, personnel costs could grow to 80 percent of the budget in a decade, leaving little money to train for and fight wars.
And while Mr. Hagel did not discuss it publicly, senior officials said later that the Defense Department has also undertaken a major review of its war plans — including those for Iran and the Korean Peninsula — to measure whether tactics still match ready forces after so many years of conflict focused on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.
“The world didn’t wait for us while were in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Ashton B. Carter, the deputy defense secretary, who led the Strategic Choices and Management Review for Mr. Hagel. “This is something we are looking at very hard. What are the contingencies? What are the wars? And what is our operational approach to each one?”
Mr. Hagel is facing off against a Congress that may prevent him from making really tough choices, as members fear the economic consequences in their districts, especially those that might lose military bases to consolidation. Then there are the military branches, now engaged in a renewed round of interservice rivalry over their share of the budget, a debate for dollars that receded for more than a decade because of the free spending that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks.
And even the president’s own Office of Management and Budget pressed Mr. Hagel to suppress the release of statistics showing the dire potential impact of continued across-the-board cuts, according to several officials, who spoke anonymously to discuss an internal debate.
One administration official said the budget office wanted to protect President Obama’s “negotiating space.” Officials also expressed concern that if the Pentagon sings the sequester blues too effectively, hawkish members of Congress might carve out budget exemptions to protect the military that would have to come at the expense of domestic programs that are now far higher on the president’s agenda.
Despite the pressure, Mr. Hagel released details of the review, akin to a detailed X-ray of a sick patient, with the problems, risks and dangers all identified. But there is no consensus on what treatment is best — or what is affordable.
Mr. Carter acknowledged that ground forces were likely to take the largest cuts. “We have to maintain a very high state of readiness, and the more ready and forward-deployed a force you have — that takes money — inevitably that makes for a smaller force,” he said.
The review also argued in favor of preserving money for military units and their most useful weapons — including a new bomber and electronic warfare — in a renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific region, Mr. Carter said.
Some skeptics of the review process said it failed to challenge in fundamental ways how the military is organized, trained and equipped, rather than simply choosing what gets smaller and what is protected in the budget.
Are aircraft carrier strike groups still the most effective, and cost-effective, way of projecting power? Are humans still required in the cockpit of warplanes? While the Navy may need its own small army, called the Marines, does the Navy’s small army really need its own air force? Does the current triad of nuclear bombers and missiles in silos and aboard submarines still make sense, and at what numbers?
Hundreds of billions of dollars are buried in those questions. The answers may end up being that the status quo should be preserved, but those questions were not the focus of the review.
Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was Mr. Carter’s partner in leading the review, noted that strategy must assess ends, ways and means.
“It’s not about one or the other; it’s about balancing all three,” Admiral Winnefeld said. “And I would tell you, we didn’t come up with any dramatic changes in service organization or anything like that, but there was a considerable effort involved in the ‘ways.’ And things like, how do you generate presence more innovatively? How would you do homeland air defense more innovatively?”
Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University, said the review did not go nearly far enough, especially in searching for savings that could be found by greater cuts to the bureaucracy and to weapons programs.
“After World War II, in four years, the United States cut the Pentagon civil service 50 percent; after Korea, 24 percent; after Vietnam, 28 percent; after the cold war, 37 percent,” Mr. Adams wrote in an online essay for Foreign Policy.
“Nor did the secretary address in any detail the question of how much technology costs and how much could be saved by more senior-level attention to the projected costs for programs like the F-35 or the long-range strike aircraft,” he wrote.