Hagel's First Address: Light on Crises, Heavy on Restructuring

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave his first major policy address in his new role at the National Defense University today as North Korea announced it was ready for a nuclear strike on the U.S.

Still, it took a question after Hagel's speech before an auditorium of uniformed and civilian Defense employees to get Hagel to utter the name of the communist nation.

"The United States is emerging from more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the threat of violent extremism persists and continues to emanate from weak states and ungoverned spaces in the Middle East and North Africa," Hagel said.

"There also stands an array of other security challenges of varying vintage and degrees of risk to the United States. The proliferation of dangerous weapons and materials, the increased availability of advanced military technologies in the hands of state and non-state actors, the risk of regional conflicts that could draw in the United States, the debilitating and dangerous curse of human despair and poverty, as well as the uncertain implications of environmental degradation."

Shortly after Hagel's remarks, the Pentagon announced in a brief statement it would deploy a  ballistic missile defense system to Guam in the coming weeks “as a precautionary move to strengthen our regional defense posture against the North Korean regional ballistic missile threat."

“This deployment will strengthen defense capabilities for American citizens in the U.S. Territory of Guam and U.S. forces stationed there,” the Pentagon press office said.

Hagel's address was destined to be a content struggle between North Korea and sequestration. While the department faces massive uncertainty sparked by the budget cuts, he'd just met South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-Se at the Pentagon before the trip to Fort McNair, at which Hagel reaffirmed "that the United States' enduring defense and extended deterrence commitments to South Korea will not change and that it is our duty to remain vigilant during this time of heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula," according to a readout of the meeting from Pentagon Press Secretary George Little.

Last night, Hagel was on the phone with China's Minister of National Defense General Chang Wanquan, a call in which "the secretary emphasized the growing threat to the U.S. and our allies posed by North Korea's aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs and expressed to General Chang the importance of sustained U.S.-China dialogue and cooperation on these issues," according to Little.

When it came time to address the military and civilian staff in the hall, Hagel focused less on the "combustible and complex" world and more on reshaping the military.

"The United States military remains an essential tool of American power, but one that must be used judiciously, with a keen appreciation of its limits. Most of the pressing security challenges today have important political, economic, and cultural components and do not necessarily lend themselves to being resolved by conventional military strength," he said.

"…As this audience knows very well, this process of change and realignment is already well under way."

Hagel said the sequestration cuts, projected to wipe $500 billion from the Pentagon over the next decade, are "already having a disruptive and potentially damaging impact on the readiness of the force" because of the disproportionate effect on operations and maintenance.

"The department has already made many cuts, including cuts to official travel and facilities maintenance. We have imposed hiring freezes and halted many important but non-essential activities," he said. "However, it will have to do more. Across-the-board reductions of the size we are looking at will demand that we furlough civilian personnel, which could affect morale and may impact productivity."

A student from the National War College later said to the defense secretary "in case your advisers haven't told you, it is affecting morale."

Hagel vowed to reassess numbers and ratios of civilians, enlisted, officers, and reserves and study "the appropriate distribution of troops performing combat, support and administrative duties" to "adapt to new realities."

"In many respects, the biggest long-term fiscal challenge facing the department is not the flat or declining top-line budget. It is the growing imbalance in where that money is being spent internally," he said. "…If these trends are not reversed, the former chief of naval operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, warned DoD could transform from an agency protecting the nation to an agency administering benefit programs, capable of buying only limited quantities of irrelevant and overpriced equipment."