If loose lips sink ships, this Pentagon is taking on a lot of water.
The release of the Pentagon's massive-yet-smaller budget is just weeks away, but budget decisions like the number of ships the Navy will buy or the size of the National Guard have been dribbling out in the media for months. That has pleased reporters looking for scoops and those defense officials who seek to shape the debate about weapons programs in a budget cycle that has produced much anxiety before it has even begun. But one man is not pleased: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Hagel has told his senior officers, service secretaries, and other senior civilians that he expects they'll keep it zipped until the budget is unveiled. But that hasn't stopped the leaks. One day last month -- the day after a media report indicated that the Navy's buy of the prized littoral combat ship would be cut by 40 percent -- Hagel walked into a high-level meeting of his service secretaries, chiefs, and combatant commanders to tell them again that he was really unhappy. He wasn't shrill, said one individual in the meeting, and he was measured. As he looked around the room, he was pointed and he was firm, reminding everyone there again that he expected them to keep quiet.
"The secretary is extremely disappointed in the volume of information that unnamed sources believe is in their purview to share publicly about decisions that quite frankly haven't been finalized in some cases," Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, told Foreign Policy. "The secretary has expressed his displeasure over these leaks to the civilian and military leadership of the department on more than one occasion."
It's not entirely clear, of course, that any people sitting at the table that day were themselves guilty of the leaks. Nevertheless, there's no question that the leaks have already dominated this year's budget cycle. Cuts to the Army National Guard and Reserve and reductions to the Air Force's fleet of storied A-10 "Warthog" jets and the controversial F-35 fighters have all been floated publicly in media reports. The most prominent leak was probably the one indicating there would be a reduction in the number of littoral combat ships, the Navy will reportedly buy, from 52 to 32.
All the leaks suggest there will be few secrets when this year's budget is unveiled in March. But what's more significant is that the leaks have allowed opponents of such cuts to mobilize on Capitol Hill in hopes of preventing them. For example, after the story about the cuts to the Navy's ships was published, more than 20 members of Congress wrote Hagel to share their concerns about the possible cut.
Hagel is expected to do a soft rollout of the 2015 budget as early as next week. But much of what he has to say may not be news. That's due largely to the decidedly different approach he took on leaks where he favored trust of his people over strong-arming them.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates demanded that his senior officers, chiefs, and combatant commanders sign nondisclosure agreements that prohibited anyone from spilling secrets about budget deliberations. The move prompted some senior officials inside the Pentagon to grumble that Gates didn't trust his own people, but they signed the documents anyway. Gates's successor, Leon Panetta, reportedly followed suit by asking his people to sign similar agreements, not for the Pentagon's budget, but for a critical strategy document that was being written at the time. In December 2011, Panetta ordered officials preparing that strategy to sign a paper on which they promised not to disclose information about their work on the strategy -- which would have foreshadowed important budget decisions to come.
"Secretary Panetta views these agreements as critical to ensuring that decisions remain driven by strategy and analysis," Doug Wilson, Panetta's spokesman at the time, told Bloomberg.
Those documents helped prevent the kind of widespread leaks that can undermine budgetary and political success for Pentagon chiefs. Gates, for example, was able to get much of what his budget asked for in 2009 through Congress, in part because of the strategic rollout -- the budget remained under wraps until Gates was ready to unveil it, which meant that major defense contractors had little time to get their congressional allies ready to battle the Pentagon on their behalf.
Hagel's style has been markedly different. Unlike Gates and Panetta, Hagel did not require senior officers and secretaries to sign nondisclosure agreements, preferring to trust them to keep the secrets of the budget strictly confidential.
A senior defense official said Hagel wasn't naive about leaks but didn't want to run roughshod over senior officials entrusted with a wide variety of critical information. "His message to the leadership was: 'I'm going to trust you,'" the official told FP.
But that trust seems to have been misplaced. In recent weeks alone, there have been leaks not only about the number of littoral combat ships the Navy will buy, but the size of the cuts to the Army National Guard, and there have been several slips about changes to the military's compensation package. The level of detail in some of the reports has been eye-opening, a testament to both the skill of the reporters breaking the stories and the willingness of their sources to share ostensibly highly confidential information.
Take a recent Bloomberg article about the Pentagon's "pre-decisional" budget thinking about the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. The troubled program has been massively over budget, and Bloomberg said the Defense Department would be requesting 34 of the planes, not the 42 that had been expected.
"The fiscal 2015 request, to be released on March 4, will include funds to buy 26 of the Air Force's model, six of the Marine Corps' short-takeoff and vertical-landing jets and two of the Navy's version for aircraft carriers, according to the officials familiar with the plans who asked not to be identified because the budget hasn't been made public," Bloomberg reported.
On Jan. 15, Defense News broke the news that Hagel's Pentagon would limit its buy of littoral combat ships. The decision, the paper reported, came in a Jan. 6 memo from Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox, who was said to be furious about the leak. (Some believed that Navy officials leaked information about the ship cut in the hopes that the cuts would be reversed; others believe there would be no advantage to the Navy to leak the fact that the budget for a prized ship would be cut.)
There have been other leaks about military compensation and benefits that have helped sharpen lobbying efforts by the bevy of veterans organizations that will fight to prevent any cuts from those coffers.
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, which does consulting for a number of defense firms, thinks that Hagel's ship is looser and that the leaks don't bode well for the success of his budget.
"The traditional military values like surprise and precision and synchronization matter as much in politics as they do in combat," Thompson told Foreign Policy. "If your budget arrives on Capitol Hill with all the controversial details already in legislator's minds, then it's going to be harder to sell because the defenders of the status quo will have been alerted."
But the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments' Todd Harrison, a well-known defense budget analyst in Washington, sees many of the reports about the budget not as leaks as much as trial balloons. "The services and to a lesser extent [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] are testing ideas to see where the resistance would be," he told Foreign Policy. "The services are doing their own thing, and as a result we're seeing more trial balloons."
It's not necessarily a bad thing, he said. The more transparent approach may unnecessarily anger some constituents, who are able to mobilize and counter a proposed cut before it sees the light of day when the budget is released -- tying the hands of Pentagon leaders. But on the other hand, there's a level of accountability and openness that allows for public debate.
"If they are making the right decision, then that decision should be able to stand up to public scrutiny and debate," Harrison said. "And if you really have a good case for what you're doing, you should be able to make that case and win the argument."
Fox tried to do just that at a conference last week in California in which she took swipes at the littoral combat ship -- signaling the Pentagon's thinking on the matter -- but never named it. "Niche platforms that can conduct a certain mission in a permissive environment have a valuable place in the Navy's inventory, yet we need more ships with the protection and firepower to survive against a more advanced military adversary," she said at the event in San Diego.
Then Fox noted pointedly the fact that much of the budget is already out there. "At this point, I obviously can't share any particular program decisions, including the ones you have probably already read stories about in the press, but I can provide the fiscal and budgetary context that shaped our recommendations," she said.
Photo: Getty/Chip Somodevilla