MANAMA, Bahrain, December 6, 2013 – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ended his talk with troops here today as he usually does, offering to answer questions or listen to any advice they can offer.
The service members and civilian mariners aboard the USS Ponce Hagel spoke with today didn’t offer advice, but they did ask about Iran, women in combat, and pay and benefits.
The six-month interim agreement with Iran the State Department announced in November, Hagel said, is intended to allow space and time for negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and other issues.
Hagel said as secretary of defense and as a former senator, he believes the agreement represents an opportunity “to probe in great detail the possibilities of getting to a higher ground … and see, in fact, if the Iranians are serious about following through” on their pledge to halt pursuit of nuclear weapons.
During that six-month period, he added, “We will keep the same kind of strong assets, [and we will conduct] the same exercises” as usual.
“We understand, clearly, the dangers that Iran represents and has represented,” he said. “ … This is not an exercise based in folly. This is very clear-eyed, real engagement. Whether we can get to where we hope we can get to in six months, I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Hagel offered a quick seminar in response to a question on pay and benefits.
With a continuing resolution controlling government spending through Jan. 15, no defense budget, and the likelihood of an additional $52 billion sequestration cut in defense funding next fiscal year, he said, Pentagon planners are challenged to map out the next five years.
“Always, you protect your people,” he said. “ … This institution completely, absolutely relies on you.”
The United States has a tremendous advantage in cutting-edge technology, he said, but it’s useless without capable, committed people to use it.
“We are reviewing pay, compensation, retirement … every aspect of our budget,” Hagel said.
The secretary assured the troops that he and other defense leaders “begin every decision process … first focusing on taking care of our people.”
Hagel’s next questioner asked the secretary’s opinion of women in combat. Given that three Marine women graduated from the Corps’ enlisted infantry training in November, a male Marine asked, “Will we see full integration within the infantry battalions? And what is your personal opinion on this?”
Hagel termed the women’s achievement “tremendous,” and said women Marines, soldiers, airmen and sailors should be given more opportunities for jobs, promotions and command positions.
The female troops he has spoken with don’t want the standards lowered for them, the secretary said. “And if women can and want to serve in any of … the combat areas and they can meet those standards, they should be allowed to serve.”
The services are evolving through the process of opening combat arms to women, he said, and are on track with the effort.
“I’m personally strongly supportive of it,” Hagel said. “ … I’m very proud of these women who are stepping forward and who want to do more things, and are doing more things.”
The secretary is scheduled to deliver a speech here tomorrow during the Manama Dialogue, and will travel to Qatar later this week.