Unless Sens. Ted Cruz, James Inhofe or another GOP senator decides to take some extraordinary actions, their former colleague Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be Defense Secretary will be approved this week by about 65 of their colleagues. It is not a time when many candidates would asipire to be SecDef. The budget is beginning its — hopefully — long and measured decline while we are still at war in Afghanistan, Iran is increasingly exciting, Syria is a mess, the Sahara may be turning into the new Afghanistan, China is rising, North Korea thumps its chest and blows up nuclear weapons and, well, you get the idea. So Hagel can use all the advice he can get. Here’s some from one of his future employees. — The Editor.

Senator Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as the next Secretary of Defense appears to be a done deal. Considering the myriad of challenges facing him in his new position, Hagel would be well-served to look to previous secretaries for ideas of how to get off to a strong start, as well as for warnings of pitfalls to avoid.

Perhaps the most obvious choice is the twentieth Secretary of Defense, William Cohen. Both are Republicans picked by a Democratic president to run the Pentagon. Both assumed office during the president’s second term. Both have extensive experience in dealing with Congress, and both inherit a department in great need of reform.

President Clinton recognized the need to transform the Department of Defense during his time in office. The defense organization, infrastructure, legal and regulatory structure he inherited were developed during the course of theCold War, often through accretion.

As secretary, Cohen immediately focused on igniting a revolution in business affairs to try and improve departmental management. He understood there was no alternative but to achieve fundamental reform to counter both the emerging threats and management problems of the day so he created the Defense Reform Initiative (DRI).

The DRI offered four guiding principles:

  • Reengineer: This meant adopting modern business practices to improve performance.
  • Consolidate or streamline organizations to remove redundancy.
  • Compete, or, in other words, apply market mechanisms to improve quality, reduce costs and become more responsive.
  • Eliminate: Cut excess support structures to free resources and focus on core competencies.

In November 1997 the initial DRI Report identified sweeping changes with specific targets. For example, it outlined reductions of at least 7 percent and as much as 33 percent to the OSD staff, Joint Staff, Combatant Commands, and DoDAgencies over a five-year period.

Cohen issued fifty-two reform directives between November, 1997 and November, 1999. A critical factor in his success was his strong and experienced deputy, John Hamre. The former comptroller oversaw implementation of the reform initiatives. Just as Cohen did, Hagel will need a strong deputy or special assistant to manage reform efforts and ensure his initiatives are fully executed.

The scramble that ensued to fight the decade-long global war on terror after the September 11 attacks caught the entire national security enterprise flatfooted. In the rush to protect the United States and destroy the enemy many of the DRI recommendations were discarded. We need to restart them.

There is much to do. As former Defense Undersecretary for Policy Michelle Flournoy recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, “First [to reduce defense spending], eliminate unnecessary overhead in the Pentagon, defense agencies and headquarters staffs. Since 2001, these have grown like weeds. Over the past decade, the number of DOD civilians increased by more than 100,000, to roughly 778,000 in 2010, while the number of contractors also ballooned.”

Simply rolling back that growth to Cohen-era levels could save taxpayers up to $25 billion a year. Similarly, correcting the problem of “bureaucrats in uniform”– expensive military personnel who perfom commercial work — could lead to another $5 billion to 10 billion per year in savings. If these changes are implemented over a two- or three-year period, there would be minimal disruption to the organization and to the economy.

If Hagel is going to be an effective SecDef, he must act quickly and use a two-pronged attack. First, there are major issues such as military compensation reform and reducing military health care costs. But there is little chance these problems will be resolved soon. While he must pursure these issues, Hagel must not let himself devote too much energy or resources to issues he cannot ultimately affect.

The second prong is to develop strategic, enterprise-wide reform initiatives to reduce overhead and eliminate processes that offer little value. As the Department of Defense recognized in 2010, the size of its overhead has grown to the equivalent of the GDP of a small nation – somewhere between Portugal and Israel by comparison.

Hagel has the necessary authority to change this and it is simply a matter of will to take on the longstanding issues. To start, he should leverage the work done by Secretary Gates as well as that of the Defense Business Board to identifystrategic issues affecting DoD’s cost and performance.

Hagel must also navigate through the numerous bureaucratic land mines emplaced on his path to reform. To do this, he must:

  • tackle major initiatives early so they can be completed during his time in office;
  • not allow career staff to stifle reform initiatives;
  • realize collaboration is good but over-collaboration is counterproductive and will disrupt momentum;
  • ensure reform initiatives do not get watered down by the normal staffing process;
  • ensure recommendations from working groups go directly to him or a single special assistant;
  • use independent assessments to determine if programs, organizations or processes add value and determine which ones can be eliminated.

There is no shortage of problematic defense issues to tackle and Hagel must take a top-down approach. Many of the current top-level organizations have established processes of tenuous value that simply create additional work for lower organizations. Once top-level reform gets underway, a cascading effect will occur throughout the enterprise. Former Secretary Cohen’s approach to reforming the department is an excellent starting point for Secretary Hagel, as he begins his new position at a critical juncture in DoD history.

Robert Kozloski is a program analyst with the Navy and a Ph.D student at George Mason University. The views expressed here are his and do not represent those of the Departments of the Navy or Defense.