WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday defended President Barack Obama’s proposed cuts to the military as the best approach as the Pentagon grapples with smaller, deficit-driven budgets.
Dismissing a suggestion that he was Obama’s hired gun to slash the defense budget, Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee that the significant reductions in projected spending was the law long before he took over at the Pentagon six weeks ago.
Hagel said he has to be realistic about the cuts of $487 billion over 10 years that Congress and Obama agreed to in August 2011 as well as the additional, automatic cuts of $41 billion that kicked in March 1.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said the widespread view was Hagel was tapped for the top Pentagon job to cut the defense budget.
“The cuts you’re talking about occurred long before I got here,” Hagel told the panel. “As to my responsibilities … (it’s to) lead, preside over an institution with only one mission: to secure this country. … Yet part of my job is to manage.”
The Pentagon chief said Obama’s instruction to him “wasn’t to cut the heart out of the Pentagon.”
Hagel faced resistance from some in Congress to proposals in the $526.6 billion Pentagon budget for fiscal 2014 that calls for another round of domestic base closings, increases in military health care fees and a smaller pay raise of 1 percent for personnel.
Hagel called the base closing system “imperfect,” but argued it was a “comprehensive and fair approach” that will result in considerable savings in the long term. He insisted that the Pentagon needed to address increasing costs of personnel benefits and excess installations to ensure that the military could carry out its mission.
He said the department is undergoing a far-reaching review to be completed by May 1 and indicated that further cuts are possible.
The hearing marked Hagel’s first trip back to Capitol Hill since his bruising Senate confirmation fight in February.
In a time of fiscal austerity, tea party figures and other conservatives have clamored for significant cuts in spending as the federal government grapples with a nearly $1 trillion annual deficit. Yet they’ve rejected cost-cutting changes envisioned by the Pentagon, including domestic base closings, an increase in health care fees for military retirees and the cancellation of some weapons.