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Hagel touts combat ships' humanitarian benefits at defense officials' meeting

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel briefs the media on board the USS Anchorage in Honolulu, on Wednesday, April 2, 2014. Hagel was in Hawaii to host a meeting with defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

HONOLULU — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel showed off a state-of-the-art $1.3 billion Navy ship for Asian defense ministers Wednesday as Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft zoomed overhead — not in a demonstration of combat firepower but as a sign of the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief the U.S. military can provide.

Hagel and the defense ministers or their representatives from 10 Southeast Asian nations toured the amphibious ship USS Anchorage docked in Pearl Harbor.

"The focus was on our efforts to bring our capabilities together, as countries who share our futures, our interests (and) our histories in the age of the Pacific region," Hagel said at the first-ever U.S.-hosted meeting of defense officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

 

"We can do more. We will do more," Hagel said of the humanitarian assistance effort at a news conference Wednesday afternoon on the helicopter landing deck of the Anchorage.

But Hagel also had a disaster of another kind to deal with: A soldier being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder shot and killed three people and wounded 16 others at Fort Hood, Texas, on Wednesday before killing himself.

Two prior shootings on military bases, including another at Fort Hood in 2009, left 26 people dead.

Hagel called the latest Fort Hood shootings a "terrible tragedy."

"Any time you lose any of your people to these kinds of tragedies, there's an issue," Hagel said. "There's a problem. We don't have any choice here but to address what happened and do everything possible to assure the safety of our men and women who work on these bases and their families."

Earlier, the defense ministers toured the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center on Ford Island, where Hagel sought to broaden the conversation about humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, or HA/DR, to include climate change.

Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, noted a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that warned that natural disasters will worsen if steps aren't taken to reduce human interference.

Shah said one of the discussion items was "the recognition that we're really all in this together" in the disaster-prone Pacific.

He also said HA/DR in the Pacific would benefit from greater participation by the United Nations and organizations such as Catholic Relief Services and the Mercy Corps.

The Anchorage, based in San Diego, can carry up to 800 Marines, amphibious landing craft and Ospreys and helicopters. Hagel held the news conference, with the ASEAN defense ministers seated in the front row, next to an AH-1Z Super Cobra attack helicopter and in front of a parked Osprey.

Although designed for combat, the equipment all was characterized Wednesday in terms of its dual use for humanitarian assistance.

Marine Corps tracked Amphibious Assault Vehicles can transport 21 civilians in an emergency, and the Anchorage can deploy with 15 of the vehicles, officials said. A landing craft aboard the ship can pick up 400 people.

"That's where amphibs (ships) come into play," said Ensign Taylor Pierce, a crew member on the Anchorage. The LPD-17 class of ships, of which the Anchorage is one, "works well for humanitarian assistance," he added.

The 684-foot ship has two medical operating rooms and a six-bed intensive care unit that is intended to support military operations but can be used for civilian care.

Hagel was asked by Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based news outlet, whether as a result of the Pacific pivot, the United States is moving away from partners in the Middle East.

"The United States of America is not retreating from any part of the world. There is no indication of that, especially (in) the Middle East," Hagel said, adding America has a "tremendous resource asset base" there.

Hagel said the U.S. is "always reassessing" its deployment of manpower and materiel.

He noted that America has 300,000 men and women stationed or deployed abroad in almost 100 countries.

On the subject of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Hagel said the United States has been "complying with every request made by the Malaysian government" for assistance.

Hagel also was asked whether he plans to make the U.S.-hosting of the ASEAN defense ministers an annual event.

"First, it's not my decision. That is the ASEAN ministers' decision. I would hope that we could do something similar to this, but that's for the ASEAN ministers to decide," Hagel said.

ASEAN is made up of 10 member nations: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Cambodia.

Last August in Brunei, Hagel attended an ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus, which brings together the 10 nations and eight other countries as "dialogue partners," including the United States.

Hagel said he will attend another of the meetings in Burma later this year.

"So I think we want to continue to strengthen and coordinate with our ASEAN partners," he said. "I would welcome very much (the opportunity to make the U.S.-hosted meeting) a regular event."

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