Hagel certain of US strength amid era of cutbacks

The Navy’s 285 ships may drop to 257 in 2020 under ongoing sequestration.

The Army could shrink to between 380,000 and 450,000 soldiers from 540,000 now.

The number of carrier strike groups could fall to eight or nine from 11, and the Marine Corps force could drop to between 150,000 and 175,000 from 182,000.

Air Force squadrons also could be cut.

Those are potential scenarios laid out last month by the Pentagon for a budget-constrained military of the future.

On Thursday, during a stop at Marine Corps Base Hawaii at Kaneohe Bay by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a Marine asked how the U.S. could keep its military looking strong in the public eye.

“Are we projecting weakness and lack of confidence?” Hagel said, paraphrasing the question.

The answer is no, he said.

“Even with these cuts, and they are severe, and they may be even more severe, there is no question America has the most significant military capability in the world. There is no military close to this military,” Hagel said.

“And we have made it very clear to the American people, to our friends and allies, and to our adversaries that that is the case,” he added.

Even with a reduced budget, the United States will have the “most capable, strongest military force in the world for a long time to come,” Hagel said.

According to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, founded by a former U.S. commerce secretary, $682 billion in U.S. defense spending in 2012 was more than the amount spent by the next 10 countries combined, including China.

Hagel spoke to about 200 Marines and sailors on the helicopter flight line at Kaneohe Bay at the start of a four-nation trip to Southeast Asia.

The defense secretary will travel to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Jakarta, Indonesia; and to Brunei to meet with defense counterparts from across the Asia-Pacific region.

His trip will conclude in the Philippines, where the U.S. is seeking an agreement for increased rotational forces to the country.

Hagel also told the troops that the Defense Department has to be “honest with the American people,” adding, “We have to be honest with the Congress.”

And Congress has to be given the best assessment of “what and how our capacity, our capabilities would be affected with large cuts in our budget.”

A Strategic Choices and Management Review of options for dealing with the budget uncertainties was outlined July 31 by the Pentagon.

Hagel said at the time that if sequester-level cuts persisted, the Defense Department would have to reduce spending by nearly $1 trillion over the next 10 years, due both to sequestration and a previously mandated $487 billion in cuts.

Two strategies to reduce force structure and modernize are under review.

The first would “trade away size for high-end capability” or high technology, with the troop cuts previously outlined, the Pentagon said.

The second approach would trade high-tech capability for size, with the Pentagon keeping its ability to deploy ships and aircraft by limiting cuts to ground forces and equipment, but sacrificing many modernization programs.

Hagel also said Thursday that it is important to examine current practices.

“Can we do things better? Can we do things more effectively, more efficiently?”

He questioned how many would have thought of cyber warfare as a threat 10 years ago.

“Cyber warfare represents one of the greatest threats to the security of America of any threats out there,” Hagel said.

The coordination and coalition of terrorist groups “is now something we’ve never seen before,” Hagel added. “That’s going to require different kinds of strategies and thinking.”

“And that doesn’t mean we’re going to not need our Army or our Marines or ground forces, for example,” Hagel said. “We’ll always need those forces. But it’s new strategic thinking, new strategic reviews. And we’ll get there. We’ll come out of this stronger and better than we went in.”

In the meantime, a lot of military might will be in flux — affecting contracts and jobs.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said Aug. 12 during a stop in Hawaii that Pearl Harbor is expected to lose all three of its cruisers in the coming years, but gain four more destroyers and a troop- and equipment-carrying Joint High Speed Vessel similar to the defunct Hawaii Superferry.

Greenert also said $80 million in surface ship maintenance is at risk in fiscal 2014 for Pearl Harbor ships due to sequestration and with the Navy absorbing $14 billion in spending cuts starting in October.

Hawaii’s U.S. Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa met with Hagel before and after the troop talk.

Hirono said she wanted to reinforce how important Hawaii is to the “rebalance” of the Pacific “and to make sure that we’re going to get the kind of support that we need for our infrastructure needs: Pearl Harbor modernization, Pohakuloa training, the Marine Corps base. We have a lot of infrastructure needs.”

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