Under sequestration, the Pentagon faces $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade, $45 billion just in the remaining months of this fiscal year. The across-the-board cuts affect every branch of the military—everything from contracts, to fixing ships, to training troops. But Hagel isn’t without options.

One approach is to push Congress to pass what Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, calls a reprogramming package. If passed by Congress, the measure would let Hagel protect certain areas where deep cuts would cause more damage. It would also allow him to kill certain programs if he wants.

Take, for example, Tricare, the health care program for active and retired military personnel and their families. In the remaining months of the fiscal year, the Pentagon will have to cut $3 billion from the program. But what happens to the health care coverage for those people? Does the Pentagon deny care or not pay the health care providers?

“The secretary of Defense has very little—virtually no—discretion in how these cuts are applied,” Harrison said. “This is just an automatic, across-the-board thing. If he wants to have any control in how those cuts are targeted, he’s going to have to wrestle that back from Congress.”

But this type of request is unprecedented and outside of what is normally allowed, Harrison warned.