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Hagel leaves the door ajar for defense policy changes

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The written policy statements made by a Cabinet-level nominee on the eve of a congressional confirmation hearing are routinely purged of news, with anything remotely provocative excised by the executive branch’s best political handlers to ensure a smooth path to a positive vote. So deriving useful clues from the answers provided this week by the nominee for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, to questions posed by members of the Senate Armed Services committee requires a bit of reading between the lines.

The clues are not in what Hagel states, in fact. They’re in what he does not state.

Often, when asked to affirm his support for the policy or programs embraced by one or both of his two predecessors under Obama, Hagel enthusiastically added his endorsements -- to the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and the avoidance of a direct U.S. military role in Syria, for example. But on a few critical topics, he demurred, invoking the need for further personal study. Or he promised only to ensure that the programs at issue are well-managed, skipping the opportunity to embrace a goal or timetable that defense officials have depicted as vital.

He left himself room, in short, to diverge from the paths taken in Obama’s first term. (He also did this in the Jan. 31 confirmation hearing, as explained below).

Take the volatile issue of the Pentagon’s overall budget level, for example. Under Leon Panetta, the department refashioned its military strategy to accommodate a sizable reduction in planned spending increases; since then, Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have tried to draw the line against further reductions, warning repeatedly that they could lead to a hollow force.

Hagel was invited to concur.

Instead, he said the department has a good strategy and that he dislikes the idea of “sequestration” – a forced percentage cut across all major Pentagon proposals that now hangs in Washington’s air. But Hagel also made clear the strategy now is not set in concrete: “I will,” Hagel said, “further assesss the strategy according to changes in the security environment and continued fiscal pressure.”

Do you agree with the chiefs, he was asked, that Washington is on the brink of creating a “hollow force” due to budget cuts? “I am concerned by the Joint Chiefs’ assessment,” Hagel responded guardedly, promising to work to understand their complaint better.

On the F-35 jet fighter program – the costliest weapon system in U.S. history – Hagel was asked if the administration’s extensive work to restructure the plane’s procurement and solve its technical problems so far has been adequate.

He declined to make that endorsement. “I will,” he said, “make it a high priority to examine the health of this program to determine if it is on a sound footing and ensure the aircraft are delivered with the capability we need and a cost we can afford.”

Asked if he embraced the Navy’s current, costly ambition to float a 313-ship fleet, Hagel said he was aware of the “stated requirement,” but promised only to “work with the Navy and Congress to ensure naval forces are appropriately structured to meet our national defense needs.” During the committee's hearing on Jan. 31, Hagel similarly sidestepped requests by lawmakers to endorse the production of 12 new nuclear-carrying submarines and ten new attack submarines.

On the former, "I would want to talk to" the Chief of Naval Operations to get a better understanding of "our budget obligations," Hagel said; on the latter, he promised only to support "what we need."

Asked in writing if he supports a highly specific promise made by the administration – on the eve of securing Senate approval for a new arms reduction treaty in 2010 – to fund a suite of costly improvements to the U.S. nuclear weapons production complex, Hagel avoided a direct answer.

Instead, he promised to support a “safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent,” and said vaguely that “I will work to ensure appropriate funding levels and cost-effective management for these efforts.” Asked further whether he is concerned that the Pentagon may not be able to afford the costs of modernizing its nuclear forces, Hagel said “I am not able to make a judgment on this at this time.”

At the hearing, Hagel also refused to be drawn into questions about keeping land-based missiles and tactical weapons as part of the nuclear arsenal. He did reaffirm, however, the concern he expressed in a report last summer about the current U.S. policy of keeping nuclear weapons on a hair-trigger alert, ready for launch on short notice. "You don't," Hagel said, "get a lot of second chances" if nuclear weapons are launched by mistake.

The times, they are about to be changin.’