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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."

Hagel wrapped up with his thoughts on America's role in the world, a subject stirring memories of his rocky confirmation hearing.

"If we refuse to lead, something, someone will fill the vacuum. The next great power may not use its power as responsibly or judiciously as America has used its power over the decades since World War II," he said. "We have made mistakes and miscalculations with our great power. But as history has advanced, America has helped making a better world for all people with its power. A world where America does not lead is not the world I wish my children to inherit."

Promising to take a few questions if they weren't "too tough" -- "and even if a general asks a question, I'll answer it" -- Hagel fielded concerns about furloughs and China before a Defense Intelligence Agency employee asked him about recent reported comments from the Defense secretary on North Korea and nuclear capability.

Hagel quipped that press secretary Little chided him to "keep your answers short" and "deny like hell."

"As I said in a news conference, I guess, last week when asked about this, it only takes being wrong once. And I don't want to be the secretary of defense who was wrong once," he said. "So we will continue to take these threats seriously. I hope the North will ratchet this very dangerous rhetoric down. There is a pathway that's responsible for the North to get on a path to peace, working with their neighbors. There are many, many benefits to their people that could come. But they've got to be a responsible member of the world community. And you don't achieve that responsibility and peace and prosperity by making nuclear threats and taking very provocative actions."

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Hagel, "like many of his predecessors, has laid out a bold agenda for reform."

"As encouraging as many of the secretary's remarks are, the fact that he is being driven to consider dramatic reform not because of strategic threats but because of an irrational budgetary environment remains troubling. The Armed Services Committee will do what it can to prevent the Pentagon from making ill-considered short-term cuts at the expense of long-term strategic need," McKeon said. "We cannot allow inadequate budgets to drive unacceptable strategies."

En route to Denver today for President Obama's gun-control rally, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that despite a new ruler in Pyongyang, North Korea's behavior "represents a familiar pattern, and as I think we’ve seen over the past several administrations."

"North Korea knows the path that's available to it -- the regime does -- and that is a path towards greater integration in the international community, stronger economic development, and better prospects for the North Korean people if they take substantive steps towards denuclearization and abide by the series of international obligations that they are currently flouting," Carney said.

Over at the State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called North Korea freezing entry to the border industrial zone from South Korea "a regrettable move."

"It says to us that despite the international community’s open door to choose a different path, which we have had open for a long, long time now, the Korean leadership is choosing to violate its international obligations and to flout international law rather than to feed and help and improve the lives of their own people," Nuland said.

The Korean Central News Agency, the mouthpiece for Kim Jong-un's regime, reported today on "the final decision of justice prompted by the matchless grit of the brilliant commander of Mt. Paektu to put a definite end to the long-standing history of showdown with the U.S. imperialists and blow up the dens of evils."

"The grudge of the Korean people at the U.S., the sworn enemy, is running high and their patience has gone beyond limitation," the article continued. "All the service personnel and people of the DPRK have waited for the time of a final battle for national reunification, pledging revenge on the U.S. for over half a century. They are waiting for the final order of Kim Jong Un, keeping themselves on high alert."