Chuck Hagel is pledging that as defense secretary he will “focus intently on ensuring the U.S. military” is prepared to strike Iran's nuclear facilities if needed.
“I agree with the president that the United States should take no options off the table in our efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Hagel said in written answers to policy questions posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will hold a hearing tomorrow on President Barack Obama's nomination of the former Nebraska senator to head the Pentagon.
“While there is time and space for diplomacy, backed by pressure, the window is closing,” Hagel said in the 112-page document obtained by Bloomberg News. “Iran needs to demonstrate it is prepared to negotiate seriously.”
Hagel's readiness to take on Iran is among questions he may face tomorrow from fellow Republicans, who have said that they are troubled by his past policy comments -- including opposition to unilateral economic sanctions against Iran and to the troop surge during the Iraq war and remarks he once made about the influence of the “Jewish lobby” in Washington.
Most of the written answers Hagel provided to the committee reflect current White House and Pentagon policy on Iraq, Afghanistan, budget cuts, personnel issues, weapons programs and the industrial base. When pressed on changes he might make if he is confirmed to succeed the departing defense secretary, Leon Panetta, Hagel repeatedly responded that he would have to weigh such matters once in office.
While Hagel, 66, has in the past described the Pentagon's budget as bloated, he said in his written responses that automatic cuts scheduled to begin in March would be “devastating,” echoing Panetta's position on the across-the- board reductions known as sequestration. Unless Congress and Obama agree on an alternative plan to reduce the federal deficit, defense programs will be cut by $45 billion through September and about $500 billion over a decade.
“It would harm military readiness and disrupt each and every investment program,” Hagel said. “I urge Congress to eliminate the sequester threat permanently and pass a balanced deficit-reduction plan.”
There also would be “negative effects on morale and welfare of the force including recruiting and retention problems,” Hagel said.
“It would send a terrible sign to our military and civilian workforce, to those we hope to recruit and to both our allies and adversaries,” he said.
While Panetta once called the automatic cuts a “doomsday mechanism,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in an interview yesterday that it is now “more likely than unlikely” that sequestration will go ahead.
Hagel indicated that he would be a hands-on manager when it comes to defense contracting.
Asked about Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program, Hagel expressed concern about the strategy for acquiring the jet for the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps.
The Pentagon “has taken too much risk” with the program's “concurrency” strategy that builds planes while they are still being developed, “committing to production well before the design was tested enough to know that it is mature and stable,” he said.
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top weapons buyer, said last year that the approach was “acquisition malpractice.”
The F-35 “has experienced significant cost increases and schedule slips,” Hagel said.
The Pentagon's $395.7 billion estimate for the total cost of development and production of 2,443 fighters is a 70 percent increase since the initial contract with Bethesda, Maryland- based company was signed in 2001.
If confirmed, Hagel said, “I will make it a high priority to examine the health of this program to determine if it is on sound footing and ensure the aircraft are delivered with the capability we need and cost we can afford.”