WASHINGTON — Less than three weeks after automatic budget cuts reduced military spending, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered Pentagon leaders to review the viability of the Asia-centric military strategy released last year.

The study, which Hagel wants finished by May 31, will “examine whether assumptions made in that strategy are still applicable,” according to a Monday statement by Pentagon press secretary George Little.

Little said Tuesday that Hagel did not order the review intending to create a whole new strategy.

“Our desire is to fund as much of the strategy as possible, but we may have to make some tough choices” because of budget realities, he said.

The mechanism known as “sequestration” on March 1 slashed $46 billion out of the current year’s Defense Department budget and mandated a half-trillion dollars of cuts over a decade — a result of an ideologically deadlocked Congress’s inability to reach a deficit cutting agreement.

Prior to March 1, defense leaders including then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta repeatedly warned that the strategy, which would shift the U.S. military’s focus from fighting land wars in the Middle East to a greater focus on the Asia-Pacific region, could not be enacted as planned under sequestration.

Last month, as sequestration approached, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter warned that if the cuts happened, in the long term “we’re not going to be able to carry out the defense strategy — the new defense strategy — that we crafted under President Obama’s leadership just one year ago.”

But when the cuts took effect two days after his swearing in, Hagel dialed back such dire assessments, saying the strategy was still “the correct policy.”

“We have been implementing that strategic guidance over the last year,” he said. “We will continue to implement that policy.”

Don’t look for Hagel’s new order to result in the reversal of the so-called “pivot to Asia,” an expert on Southeast Asia said Monday.

Instead, said Ernie Bower, chair for Southeast Asian studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, the study is likely to be a “bureaucratic exercise to reconfirm that commitment” to a larger U.S. military presence in the western Pacific.

“Hagel will want to put his imprimatur on the strategy, and I suppose he is asking for this review so he can make it his own in some way,” Bower said.

America’s economic interests, as well as the expectations of partners in the region, mean the Asian realignment can’t realistically be shelved, regardless of budget realities, he said.

“Treaty allies in Asia want an American presence to allow the peaceful rise of China,” Bower said. “They want American presence to assure stability, and the ability to continue the economic growth that’s occurring there.”

The review will go beyond a study of the strategy alone, however. Under Hagel’s order, issued last week, officials will “examine the choices that underlie the Department of Defense’s strategy, force posture, investments, and institutional management — including all past assumptions, systems, and practices,” Little said.

The outcome of the what the Pentagon is calling the “Strategic Choices and Management” review will help form the defense secretary’s guidance for the fiscal 2015 budget, Little said. Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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