Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel assured Marines in Hawaii that despite deep budget and force cuts, the U.S. military will remain the world's best, and the nation will honor the commitments it has made to them, Aug. 22.
Hagel kicked off a four-nation trip to Southeast Asia with a troop talk at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay.
The secretary said the Marines are integral to the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, and he recognized the pivotal role they play in strengthening alliances and partnerships across the region.
"You are at the cutting edge of security, of stability and prosperity," he told the assembled group. "You are all a part of it, at the front end of it, the cutting edge of it. And what you do and how you do it is particularly important as to how the world sees America and how they view our interests, but probably more importantly, how they view our intentions."
When the secretary opened the floor to questions, every Marine questioner asked about the impact of budget reductions and sequestration on military readiness and credibility and retirement and educational benefits.
Hagel said he and other Defense Department leaders have been honest and direct with Congress and the American people about the national security implications of large budget cuts.
He expressed concern about the size of the budget and force reductions and uncertainty about future funding levels. These factors, and the speed with which cuts are taking place, give the DOD leaders "very little flexibility in the tough decisions that are going to have to be made," he said.
Even with these challenges, the secretary emphasized that the U.S. military remains the world's best.
"Even with these cuts – and they are severe, and they may be even more severe – there is no question that America has the most significant military capability in the world," he assured the Marines.
"There is no military even close to this military," he said, a point he said the United States has made its friends, allies and adversaries alike.
"We are not without resources. We are not without capability," Hagel said. "You can measure that by any metric," most notably by the men and women in uniform.
"You are the best-trained, the smartest, the best-led, most professional military force this country has ever had," Hagel told the group. He lauded the noncommissioned officer corps that he said stands head and shoulders above all others. "No other armed force in the world, no one is even close to having an enlisted NCO corps like we have in our institution," he said.
The secretary also noted the U.S. military's technological superiority and a budget, that even with deep reductions, remains sizeable.
"When you look at the balance sheet here, we are going to be the best, most capable, strongest military force in the world for a long time to come," he said.
Strategic choices being made today will help ensure that continues into the future, Hagel said.
"I think this is going to make you stronger," he said, expressing confidence in America's people, its values and its military. "We will come out of this stronger than we went in," he said.
Asked about the future of military retirement benefits, Hagel acknowledged that the current path is fiscally unsustainable for the long term.
"That doesn't mean we are going to cut off retirement benefits," he made clear. "For all of you, when you retire, your benefits should not be impacted by whatever tough choices we are going to have to make."
Hagel said he would not "play games" and tell service members that the benefits will increase. "They probably aren't going to increase," he said. "But you are not going to be hurt."
Minor adjustments may be required in areas such as Tricare premiums for retired military members, he said. "If we make some adjustments now and we are smart, then we can adjust what we need to adjust and assure that the benefits that you have earned, that we promised, are going to be there," he said.
Asked by another Marine about Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits, the secretary, who cosponsored the enacting legislation while serving in the Senate, said he will fight to keep it intact.
"It's the right thing to do for our people...It is a smart investment in our country, a smart investment in you and your families," he said. "Education cannot be disconnected from security [and] from the future of our country. So we will do everything we can to protect [it]."
Hagel will continue his Southeast Asia trip tomorrow, with stops scheduled in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.