Asia still ‘top of the list’ of Pentagon priorities, says Hagel by Carlo Munoz

View Original:  Asia still ‘top of the list’ of Pentagon priorities, says Hagel

(The Hill) Oct. 28, 2013  …  Carlo Munoz

 

The Obama administration’s military shift to Asia still tops the Pentagon’s budget blueprint as the department girds for another round of budget cuts under sequestration.

 

The planned pivot “remains at the top of the list” of the department’s investment strategy for the coming years, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday at the Pentagon.

 

As Defense Department number crunchers continue work on the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2015 spending plan, military and civilian leaders “will protect that [Asia] rebalance in any way we can,” Hagel said during a joint press conference with New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman.

 

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta unveiled Obama’s Asia-Pacific strategy last January, setting a new direction for the U.S. military as American forces shift focus from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to the open seas and skies of the Pacific.

 

Since then, Hagel has aggressively pushed that plan, making repeated trips to the area to meet with military counterparts and reinforce military cooperation pacts with regional powers.

 

On Tuesday, top leaders on the House Armed Services Commitee will preview the defense panel’s ongoing oversight efforts with the Pentagon on the Asia-Pacific strategy.

 

But the massive, across-the-board defense cuts under sequestration has cast a long shadow over those efforts, forcing Pentagon leaders to ratchet down their vision for Asia, according to Hagel.

 

Under sequestration, the Pentagon is staring down $500 billion in mandatory spending cuts. The cuts began in March and would reduce Pentagon spending by $52 billion next year.

 

Those cuts “will affect all of our plans, in all areas” including the Pacific, Hagel said Monday.

 

Hagel publicly questioned in October whether Congress can come up with a plan to stave off sequestration amid the bitterly partisan environment on Capitol Hill.

 

“I don’t know if a compromise can be reached,” Hagel said regarding the chances Congress can come up with a bipartisan deal to shelve planned budget cuts under sequestration.

 

“That’s part of the uncertainty” clouding efforts by Defense Department leaders, who are pressing ahead with worst-case budget scenarios due to the across-the-board cuts, he told reporters at the time.

 

While sequestration has left the Pentagon with a series of difficult decisions, its continued investment in current and future weapon systems shows the department’s intent to follow through on its Asia blueprint.

 

Hagel and other military leaders have repeatedly defended the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, Littoral Combat Ship and new Ford-class aircraft carrier from the budgetary chopping block.

 

While all three big-ticket weapons programs have suffered development delays and cost increases, they remain critical pieces to project U.S. military force in the Asia-Pacific region.

 

Most recently, the Air Force is pressing ahead with its new long-range bomber program.

 

Seen as the lynch pin to the service’s bomber fleet, the new aircraft will be built to go into contested airspace and defeat advanced surface-to-air defenses.

 

Some defense observers claim the capabilities envisioned for the new bomber are specifically designed to counter air defense systems fielded by China and its allies in the Pacific.

 

U.S. defense giants Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are all expected to vie for the multimillion-dollar program.

 

On Friday, Boeing and Lockheed announced they would be teaming up to compete for the lucrative bomber contract.

 

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