Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warns Americans – and skeptical lawmakers – that the extremists carving up Iraq and Syria threaten ‘every stabilized country on Earth.’ By Ben Watson
Extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, pose a “clear and imminent threat” to the United States, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday, singling out lawmakers who may have been underwhelmed by his classified testimony on Iraq and Afghanistan from Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
“Make no mistake, and this country should not make any mistake on this, nor anyone in Congress – ISIL may not appear to be an imminent threat to the United States. It is a threat to the United States. It is a threat, a clear threat to our partners in that area, and it is imminent,” Hagel said during a question-and-answer session with troops at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in southeastern Georgia.
ISIL extremists seized headlines in January after taking control of the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi – where U.S. forces suffered significant losses during last decade’s war in Iraq. Now seven months into their Iraq offensive, ISIL has captured territory to the north and west closer to Baghdad, and picked up some $425 million in stolen bank notes while claiming responsibility for executing thousands of Iraqi soldiers along the way.
“This is a force that is sophisticated, it's dynamic, it's strong, it's organized, it's well-financed, it's competent,” Hagel said. “And it is a threat to our allies all over the Middle East. It's a threat to Europe. It's a threat to every stabilized country on Earth, and it's a threat to us.
“That's clearly one of the reasons that we have put such a preeminent focus on partnerships,” Hagel said. Hagel, a longtime champion of international alliances, echoed what many Pentagon officials have said in recent months about the importance of alliances and partners in a decade of fiscal austerity and declining defense spending.
“And I think you look further in that area in the Middle East to see what's going on, in Syria, in Lebanon, what's going on in Israel today, the Gaza Strip, Libya, Egypt, there is hardly a stable country in that area of the Middle East,” Hagel said. “[The ISIL threat] is a good example of why we need strong partners in the interest of all of our security.”
Hagel’s visit to Kings Bay was the first of three stops on a two-day trip to bases in the South. Kings Bay is home to some of the Pentagon’s 14 Ohio-class, nuclear-capable submarines. The visit is meant to highlight Hagel’s oversight of the military’s nuclear forces, which have been beleaguered by cheating and morale scandals while strategists have questioned the very need for the triad of missiles, bombers and submarines designed to deliver nuclear bombs decades ago.
“The secretary has made a longstanding personal commitment to the health of our nuclear force and has made it one of his highest priorities to ensure that the United States maintains a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrence force,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby, at the Pentagon on Tuesday, said of the planned visit. “This visit will help inform the secretary's ongoing review of our nuclear enterprise and continuing his tour with -- following on from his tour of the [intercontinental ballistic missile] fleet, which was begun earlier this year.”
Concerns over budget caps imposed by sequestration have imperiled the Defense Department’s goal of funding a successor fleet for the Ohio ballistic missile sub, an effort the Pentagon wants $1.2 billion to research over the next fiscal year in the hopes that the design work can get under way in 2017.
“There's only so much to go around. You can't get any more,” said Hagel about the fiscal limitations of sequestration. But, he added, “We are continuing to be committed to a new generation of Ohio-class submarines. And this place right here is going to continue to be very important.”
On Thursday, Hagel is scheduled to visit Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Eglin houses a squadron of F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jets, the expensive and troubled next-generation aircraft that was grounded late last week after an engine inexplicably caught fire. Later that day, Hagel is scheduled to visit the Army aviation base Fort Rucker, Ala., where helicopter pilots are trained, to discuss the unclear future for Army aviation, which the Pentagon has targeted for spending and helicopter cuts.