WASHINGTON, July 16, 2013 – In an uncertain and dangerous world, American service members are helping to build a better future for all mankind, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today during a town hall meeting at Fort Bragg, N.C.
“We are truly defining a future for our country and helping others define their futures around the world,” Hagel told troops, civilians and family members at the event.
Service members do more than just put on a uniform, and civilians do more than just show up to work, the secretary said. Everyone connected to the Defense Department is part of something bigger than themselves — bigger than even the nation, Hagel added.
“I think occasionally we all can drift a bit and define ourselves, define our work, and define our missions in a more narrow channel,” the defense secretary said. “But we are helping build a new world, a better world, a fairer world, a freer world, [and] we can’t do it alone.”
The world looks to the United States not because it’s bigger, better or prosperous, Hagel said, but because of what the nation represents.
“That’s a heavy burden to carry,” he said, one that can’t be carried alone. Over the years, through many difficult lessons, the United States has learned it must rely on partnerships and relationships to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, Hagel said.
Tolerance, respect and dignity still anchor the human condition, the secretary said. “That’s what we try to address every day and what we try to protect every day, and hopefully give people opportunities to live that kind of life.”
This effort is not without its challenges, the defense secretary said.
The nation is unwinding from the longest war it has ever been in, but it still has responsibilities and commitments around the world, Hagel said. The question — not for the first time in the nation’s history — is how to balance these competing needs with the department’s more direct responsibilities for the nation’s fiscal health, he said.
“This time is probably more dramatic for some of the reasons I’ve already mentioned, but also if these dramatic [defense spending] reductions continue on the course they’re on through the current budget cap sequestration,” Hagel said. “This is forcing us to take deeper, steeper, and more abrupt reductions than we’ve ever had to do.”
Hagel said his role as defense secretary is to prepare the department for the future based on today’s realities, and that includes the possibility that sequestration will continue. “I could not stand back as secretary of defense and try to lead this institution based on — ‘Well, I hope we’ll get a change’ [or] ‘Well, I think maybe something will change,’” he said.
“You can’t lead based on hope and thinking and maybes,” the secretary continued. “You have a responsibility of leading … with the reality of what’s in front of you, and you do the best you can to repair your institution. In the end, that’s the definition of each of our lives.”
That reality forced the department to prioritize, Hagel said, adding that he had to make some difficult choices. And while budget isn’t directing national security strategy, he said, it’s an important part.
“You can have all the strategy you want,” the defense secretary said, “but you better be able to assure the president of the United States, commander in-chief, and the people of this country and your families that, in fact, we can implement that strategy — that, in fact, the president has the options when he calls [the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] or me, and we call [commanders] and say, ‘Can we do it? Do we have the capacity to do it?’”
One vehicle for addressing budget limitations, the recently announced force structure changes, is predicated on preserving combat power and readiness, Hagel said. The military’s only responsibility is the defense of the nation, he added, and everything else has to fit within that framework.
“That’s not always an easy assemblage of pieces to have to come together to assure that one responsibility, especially during a time of … significant reductions in our budget,” the defense secretary said. Preserving current readiness is coming at a cost to future readiness, “but I have to preserve as much as I can preserve with the resources I have,” he said. If sequestration continues into fiscal year 2014, an additional $52 billion in cuts will occur across the department, Hagel added.
As he sought additional ways to protect readiness, furloughs for the Defense Department’s civilian employees were the last thing he wanted to do, Hagel said, but he told the Fort Bragg audience he had no other options. Congress was unwilling to authorize the reprogramming of funds that would have prevented the need to furlough about 650,000 defense civilian employees, he explained.
“I could not take down that readiness line any further than where we were,” he said. “We’ve essentially cut [and] frozen everything we can in order to maintain those numbers.”
This may be the most difficult time to be serving the nation, Hagel said, “but we have no choice but to get through it, and we will get through it.”
Though some of the services were in better fiscal shape than others going into the sequestration period, Hagel said, he was determined for the department to stay unified. “It’s the whole point of the joint command,” he said. “I couldn’t as secretary of defense get into a situation where I was going to allow each service to make their own decisions on this. … I thought that everybody had to come into this together and go out together.
“If [for] no other reason,” he continued, “I did that because I just think it’s the fair way to do it, as fair as you can be in this business.”
When people are treated unfairly, the secretary said, it does damage to the institution.
“This is bigger than the Defense Department. It’s people. We as individuals — as human beings — each want to be treated fairly, with some dignity and some respect,” Hagel said. “And if you think you’re not treated fairly, there will be a residue of a problem there. And I thought it would be a mistake for me to make a decision [to] allow each of the services to figure out, ‘Well, I’ve got more money in my budget, and maybe he squandered his budget, and so therefore, I should be in a higher position because of my budget.’”
Hagel said a great deal of credit belongs to the service chiefs for maintaining departmental unity and not allowing budget constraints to drive the services into “tribal warfare.”
Despite the department’s efforts, the fiscal future remains uncertain, the defense secretary said. Following a departmentwide Strategic Choices and Management Review, Hagel said, the department has mapped out three options: the president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2014, full sequestration and some compromise in between.
“But I think it’s fair to say if we’re going to be living with an additional $52 billion cut, there [is] going to continue to be bad news with every aspect of our budget,” the defense secretary said.
Though he doesn’t yet know what Congress will do about the fiscal year 2014 budget request, Hagel said, he has a responsibility to work closely with the president, Congress and the people of the United States. “That’s the way our Constitution is built, and we work best when we’re working together,” he added.
“We’re going to work through this,” the defense secretary said. “In the end, we are defining a new force structure, a new institution, not unlike after Vietnam, not unlike after every conflict, not unlike every sequence of the historic cycle of world affairs.”