FORT BLISS, Texas – Chuck Hagel’s tenure as defense secretary is drawing to a close where it all began 48 years ago when he showed up at the base gate here for Army basic training in one early morning in April 1967.
The former Army sergeant and Vietnam veteran was right at home offering up career and life advice to an auditorium packed of senior enlisted military leaders, a group of individuals that Hagel has always been comfortable in front of throughout his nearly two-year tenure as defense secretary.
Here he told them that the uncertainty surrounding the Pentagon’s budget is the biggest challenge facing the military as it looks to the future.
“I think the biggest challenge is the uncertainty of the budgets,” Hagel said.
Since sophisticated military weapons and equipment often take years to build, they require consistency in funding across budgets year after year. But with budget caps in place since 2013 that have been tinkered with on a near annual basis, that has been difficult.
Threats to nation security are on the rise, Hagel said, pointing to extra duties the military has taken on in the past year to respond to Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
“Our demands aren’t getting any less and I don’t think the demands on the Department of Defense will be less over the next few years, I think they’ll be more,” Hagel said.
While Hagel said he doesn’t see the U.S. military getting involved in a lengthy ground wars in the coming years, it will still have a lot to do. And if the defense budget remains capped, the military will not be able to meet its strategic needs, he said.
“Our planners can’t commit because of the uncertainty of the budgets,” Hagel said.
Despite budget pressures, including sequestration implemented just days after he became secretary in early 2013 and a government shut down later that year, Hagel said he has worked internally to protect funding for new weapons, research projects and cyber security.
There are a number of expensive military projects on the horizon, including a new Air Force bomber and higher production rates for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
After speaking a Fort Bliss, Hagel flew north in a Black Hawk helicopter to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, a sprawling weapons test complex where praised another high-end defensive system, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile interceptor system.
“It’s one of the best defenses we have,” he said. The system is deployed to Guam to defense the Pacific island from North Korean missile launches.
Over a day that was billed as his last major address to U.S. troops, Hagel appeared more comfortable and at ease during his remarks to an auditorium packed with sergeants major. Hagel, the only enlisted soldier to lead the Pentagon, is expected to step down from his post in the coming weeks if Ashton Carter is confirmed as his replacement.
After nearly two years on the job, Hagel chose to conclude his tenure not on an overseas trip like some of his predecessors, but a three-day tour of U.S. military bases meeting with troops, that included stops on the Navy amphibious assault ship America underway off the California coast, Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar near San Diego.
Hagel spent much of his time as defense secretary his “greatest privilege.”
“It’s a job … that I think is spectacular,” he said. “I love the job.”