U.S. Strategic Command is an integral part of the nation’s security network, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said at a visit to Stratcom headquarters Thursday.
In remarks during a visit to Offutt Air Force Base, Hagel also said women will not be allowed in elite combat units unless they are as qualified as men and sexual assault will be eradicated from all branches of the military.
During a 30-minute appearance in front of Stratcom headquarters the former two-term Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska addressed about 200 people, presenting each with a service coin in recognition of exemplary service. The defense secretary was scheduled to receive a briefing on Stratcom’s nuclear command’s capabilities.
Hagel spoke for six minutes and then took questions, addressing the importance of nuclear weapons to national defense.
He said a speech June 19 by President Barack Obama does not herald the end of the U.S. commitment to a nuclear deterrent force. Speaking in Berlin, Obama called for the U.S. nuclear arsenal to be reduced by a third, from 1,500 missiles to about 1,000.
Hagel said the cut would leave the United States an adequate deterrent force and Stratcom would continue to administer it.
“Nuclear deterrence has kept world peace since World War II,” he said. “It’s an absolute in America’s defense posture. Stratcom will remain a foundational piece of our national security for a long time.”
Hagel was introduced by Stratcom Commander in Chief Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, who pointed out that Hagel is the first enlisted veteran to rise to become secretary of defense.
“This is a native son of Nebraska,” Kehler said. “He’s been a successful businessman. He’s been a two-term United States senator. He’s had a national security career in the intervening years before he became secretary of defense. But I suspect that if we asked him, that he would be delighted if one of us called him what he really is, and that is a grunt infantryman.”
A Purple Heart recipient, Hagel volunteered to serve in the infantry during the Vietnam War.
Hagel assured civilian employees that he sympathizes with their plight after federal budget cuts required them to take temporary employment furloughs of one day a week. But, he said, the cuts were necessary.
“The difficult decisions that have been made, and will continue to be made, are not made lightly or without every option considered,” he said. “But, in the end, as you each know because you have each dedicated your lives to the security of this country, we have to do what is most important for our country, and that is defend our country. Hard choices are being made and will continue to be made.”
In response to a question from Navy Petty Officer Minette Allen, Hagel said last week’s announcement that women will be integrated into all combat units by 2016 will not reduce the effectiveness of U.S. forces.
He said standards will not be compromised in order to permit women to join elite combat units.
“Women don’t want that, you wouldn’t want that,” Hagel told Allen. “We must find the right balance of implementation to allow women to move into these new opportunities and new positions if they want, and if they’re qualified, and if they can do the job. Why shouldn’t they have the same opportunities as men do? That’s essentially my point of view on this.”
He pledged to eradicate sexual assault in the military, calling the crime “a very, very dark mark” and a “scourge.”
“We will fix it,” he said. “There’s no higher priority than to make everyone accountable up and down the line. It will get fixed.”
In response to other questions, Hagel stopped short of endorsing reshaping the branches of the military into a single unified force, although he said joint commands like Stratcom are probably the wave of the future.
“We are adapting and adjusting to a world that is presenting new threats and new challenges,” he said. “Where that may end in relation to a joint force I don’t know, but it’s happening, and we, I hope, are ahead of it.”
However, Hagel did pledge not to endorse a suggestion coming from the House Armed Service Committee that all military personnel wear a common uniform unless the idea was endorsed by military members themselves.
“If I’m asked to render an opinion on this, that opinion will be rendered based on what you all think is the right decision,” he said.