By ZACHARY FRYER-BIGGS
The data contained in this report is derived from online results from 245 US-based Defense News subscribers selected by job category and seniority, representing 7 percent of those receiving invitations to participate in the survey.
Some 3,762 subscribers who identified themselves as senior military members or civilians in the US Defense Department, congressional and White House staffs, and defense industry received invitations to participate in the poll, which was open April 4-11.
All questions aside from a pair of demographic queries were optional, and respondents skipped questions in varying numbers. Because the poll is not a sampling of a larger community, there is no calculable margin of error. Respondents came from a wide range of jobs in the community:
■ 66 identified themselves as working in the defense industry, of which 40 identified as corporate executives, 11 as working in sales and marketing, and 10 as working in business development.
■ 43 identified themselves as Defense Department civilians, with 32 having attained the paygrade of GS13-15, five having achieved GS11-12 and four identifying as being part of the Senior Executive Service.
■ 32 identified themselves as in the military, including 18 flag and general officers having attained the paygrade of O-7 or higher, and 11 in the O-5 or O-6 paygrade.
Among other respondents, 29 identified themselves as consultants, 10 as White House/congressional staff members, nine as analysts and seven as other government civilians.
WASHINGTON — More leaders in government, industry and academia disapprove of US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s job performance — 44.9 percent — than approve — 36.2 percent, according to a new Defense News Thought-Leader Poll.
While Hagel received strong support from self-identified Democrats with 82.6 percent approving, a combination of Republican disapproval at 62.4 percent and those working in industry disapproving at 50.9 percent pushed Hagel into negative territory. Those in the military gave Hagel positive marks at 44/36 percent approval/disapproval, and Defense Department civilians were evenly split at 38.2 percent.
The Defense News Thought-Leader Poll, conducted over two weeks in April, asked 245 people a dozen questions, including their opinions of the job performance of various officials and their thoughts on several components of the Pentagon’s fiscal 2015 budget request to Congress.
The largest group of respondents, 26.9 percent, came from the defense industry, followed by 17.6 percent DoD civilians and 13.1 percent military. Of military respondents, more than half were flag and general officers.
The fact that Hagel received negative marks from industry shouldn’t come as a surprise, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“The first thing that anyone would have to question is whether industry would give low marks to anyone who had the job right now because they are the front man for implementing sequestration light,” she said.
“I don’t know that it’s personal. As modernization keeps getting squeezed further in the department, senior Pentagon officials are reaching out more to industry in the last 12 to 24 months,” Eaglen said. “The outreach is pretty healthy, but the news isn’t good, and that could be simply what industry is reacting to.”
Part of the challenge that Hagel has faced is relative inexperience in defense management, said Gordon Adams, a fellow at the Stimson Center and professor at American University.
“Hagel came into this job with very little experience in defense, so his learning curve is actually pretty steep, and I don’t think many people realize that,” Adams said. “He didn’t sit on the [Senate] Armed Services Committee, he sat on the Foreign Relations Committee. So even though he was once a soldier in uniform, his actual defense management experience is extremely small. Getting up to speed and getting on top of the building is a challenge.”
And earning the respect of those in the building and the larger defense community isn’t an easy task, Adams said.
“I think one of the most effective secretaries of defense in a drawdown was Dick Cheney, in the [George] H.W. Bush administration. He came in and laid down the law,” Adams said. “He really got the building’s attention, and I don’t think that almost any secretary of defense since Cheney has gotten that much respect out of the uniforms in the Pentagon.
“The big challenge of managing the Pentagon is not so much getting the love of the chiefs as it is getting the respect of the chiefs,” he said. “That’s a real challenge, and it’s especially important in a drawdown.”
The Defense Department did not provide comment by press time.
Low Marks for Politicians
Hagel wasn’t alone in receiving net negative approval marks, withall but one of the officials and groups of officials listed joining him.
President Barack Obama didn’t fare well, getting only 20.3 percent job performance approval compared to 70.6 percent disapproval. Unsurprisingly, his approval ratings were wildly different among Democrats and Republicans, with Democrats approving at 65.2 percent and Republicans disapproving at a near unanimous 95.4 percent.
Democrats in the House of Representatives received the lowest approval figure in the poll at 5.5 percent, compared to 32.7 percent for their colleagues across the aisle.
Part of the reason for the low figures for Democrats overall is strong opinion along party lines paired with a heavily skewed demographic makeup of the poll. Self-identified Republicans made up 41.6 percent of respondents compared with only 11.8 percent Democrats, joined by 30.2 percent independents and 16.3 percent who declined to answer.
The one figure to receive positive ratings: the Joint Chiefs chairman, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. Overall, he saw a 44.1/31 percent approve/disapprove ratio, with members of industry and the military giving him high marks. Interestingly, DoD civilians provided a net negative rating for Dempsey, 35.3/38.2.
“I’m surprised that in general, he was the most popular,” Eaglen said. “A lot of people in defense policy circles are incredibly disappointed in Dempsey and all the chiefs for their shifting warnings on sequestration. Now a lot of that is not their fault; there was politics at the White House.”
Doubts on Savings
While political divides were apparent in most of the responses, the more striking divide for questions about the future of the defense budget was between those in the military compared with industry and DoD civilians.
A full 67 percent of respondents said the Pentagon would save $20 billion or less in efficiencies over the next five years, compared to a stated goal of $94 billion. Of total respondents, 35.5 percent said the Pentagon would save nothing.
But following a theme that appeared repeatedly on budget questions, members of the military were especially skeptical, with 44 percent saying the Defense Department wouldn’t save anything.
“That’s the one where there’s no finger in the air, everybody understands the politics of the efficiencies,” Eaglen said. “You can have your head buried in the sand and still understand that the odds are very, very low.”
Failing to get those savings would be fairly dramatic.
“Any dollar rejected in efficiencies is a dollar taken from procurement,” Eaglen said.
If the predictions of those who believe $20 billion or less will be saved hold true, the Pentagon would be forced to find more than $70 billion in other budget savings regardless of whether budget caps are raised.
And poll respondents weren’t optimistic that current budget caps are going anywhere. Asked how much of the $115 billion requested by Obama over the budget caps that the Defense Department would receive through 2019, 18.2 percent actually said the department would get less than the caps, and 27.3 percent said DoD would get exactly the capped amounts.
Once again, military respondents were especially pessimistic, with 34.6 percent saying the Pentagon would get less than the caps, more than twice the percentage of industry people and DoD civilians.
“That’s not skepticism, that’s realism,” Adams said. “I think it’s possible we’ll end up below the caps.
“It’s a band of probabilities here. I think the highest probability is that we’ll end up with something like the caps,” he said. “The lowest probability is that it’s $115 billion over the caps. The softness is on the downside, not the upside.
“Caps or worse, I think, is realistic. That’s just history talking,” Adams said. “History says that we go down 30 to 35 percent in constant dollars from peak to trough in a drawdown. We aren’t there yet.”
But even if that extra $115 billion does appear, respondents felt they didn’t understand how the Pentagon would spend the money. Overall, 73 percent said they didn’t understand where the money would go, and among members of the military, that number was 88 percent.
Officials have had trouble explaining the numbers, as the budget doesn’t account for the extra cost of keeping a larger force. Instead, it spends the $115 billion on other priorities that would need to be rejiggered if the money actually materialized.
“This is the most confusing defense budget submission in recent memory, and the only people who understand it are [acting Deputy Defense Secretary] Christine Fox and [DoD Comptroller] Robert Hale,” Eaglen said.
She said the White House gave the green light to budget for the extra money so late that Pentagon officials have scrambled to figure out what to do with it.
“It’s no wonder that nobody knows what’s in it because they keep making it up as they go along,” Adams said.
The end-strength reductions presented by the Pentagon didn’t receive high marks when it came to strategic objectives; 56.9 percent of respondents said the US cannot complete its strategic objectives with the smaller force, including 61.5 percent of military members.
Adams said there hasn’t been a clear defense strategy, which means it’s impossible to gauge whether a specific force structure or budget could fulfill its needs.
“There’s never enough money if you continually expand the strategic objectives like an accordion,” he said. “You give me a pencil, three other guys and a dark room for a week, we’ll come up with a strategy that is eminently achievable using the size of the force at 420,000 [soldiers] for the Army and 175,000 for the Marines and 10 carriers for the Navy and one or two fewer air wings for the Air Force. This is all politics.”
Despite the generally skeptical view about future defense spending that permeated the poll, respondents did see Russian incursions into Ukraine’s territory as likely drivers of increased defense spending.
Of all respondents, 61.2 percent said the situation would cause a slight or moderate increase to US budget caps and 81.9 percent expected a similar rise in NATO member defense spending.
“I see that as the triumph of hope over reality,” Adams said. “Your sample is entirely within the defense constituency, but the politics of whether it goes up or down is not being determined by the defense constituency. They’re being made by the John Boehners and Nancy Pelosis and Harry Reids and Mitch McConnells of the world, … who aren’t in the Pentagon, who aren’t in the chattering class that thinks about defense 24 hours a day.”
But there is one sign of hope, according to Eaglen. While the budget caps are unlikely to see any significant movement, Congress can sneak money to the Pentagon by increasing overseas contingency operations (OCO) funds.
“$115 [billion] is a mirage at this point,” she said. “However, Congress loves fuzzy math just as much as the White House, and they will continue to plus up the OCO.”