In his speech last past week, Hagel quoted retired Adm. Gary Roughead, the former Navy chief, who offered a devastating assessment of the future Pentagon.
Without changes, Roughead said, the department could be transformed from "an agency protecting the nation to an agency administering benefit programs, capable of buying only limited quantities of irrelevant and overpriced equipment."
The military's health care program, known as TRICARE, provides health coverage to nearly 10 million active duty personnel, retirees, reservists and their families. Currently, retirees and their dependents outnumber active duty members and their families — 5.5 million to 3.3 million.
Powerful veterans groups, retired military officer associations and other opponents of shifting more costs to beneficiaries argue that members of the armed forces make extraordinary sacrifices and endure hardships unique to the services, ones even more pronounced after a decade-plus of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Members of the military have faced repeated deployments, had to uproot their families for constant moves and deal with limits on buying a home or a spouse establishing a career because of their transient life. Retirement pay and low health care costs are vital to attracting members of the all-volunteer military.
"If you don't take care of people, they're not going to enlist, they're not going to re-enlist," said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Resistance in Congress to health care changes was evident in the recently passed spending bill to keep the government running through Sept. 30. Tucked into the sweeping bill was a single provision stating emphatically that "none of the funds made available by this act may be used by the secretary of defense to implement an enrollment fee for the TRICARE for Life program."
The program provides no-fee supplemental insurance to retirees 65 and older who are eligible for Medicare. The Pentagon repeatedly has pushed for establishment of a fee, only to face congressional opposition.