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Hagel's On The Hill, Pushing For A Slimmer Military


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. We begin this hour on Capitol Hill, where the secretary of Defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs were grilled today by lawmakers. The Pentagon leaders appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to defend the proposed cuts in military spending. The cuts are outlined in budget President Obama sent to Congress yesterday.

But as NPR's David Welna reports, much of the four-hour hearing centered not on budget matters, but on the standoff with Russia over Ukraine.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: As he gaveled in today's hearing on the proposed defense budget, Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin gave a nod to its unusual circumstances.

SENATOR CARL LEVIN: We do so at a time of extraordinary challenge and uncertainty for the Department of Defense and for the nation.

WELNA: Levin asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, seated at the witness table, to update the panel on what U.S. military officials are doing about the Ukraine crisis. Hagel said while the emphasis is on deescalating that crisis, the U.S. is making some military moves as well.

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: The Defense Department is pursuing measures to support our allies, including stepping up joint training through our aviation detachment in Poland. It's an area that I visited a few weeks ago. And augmenting our participation in NATO's air policing mission on the Baltic Peninsula.

WELNA: Also testifying was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. He said he'd spoken this morning with his Russian counterpart.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: I conveyed to him the degree to which Russia's territorial aggression has been reputed globally. I urged continued restraint in the days ahead in order to preserve room for a diplomatic solution.

WELNA: Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker pointed out to Dempsey that Russia maintains the forces surrounding Ukraine's military posts in Crimea are not Russian.

SENATOR ROGER WICKER: Can you tell us, General, where, based on our best information, where these troops came from?

DEMPSEY: I cannot at this time tell you where the military forces inside of the Crimea came from.

WELNA: The problem, Arizona Republican John McCain told Secretary Hagel, was that the U.S. had failed to anticipate Russia's actions.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: The fact is, Mr. Secretary, it was not predicted by our intelligence and it's already been well known, which is another massive failure because of our misreading, total misreading, of the intentions of Vladimir Putin.

WELNA: Hagel rejected McCain's charges.

HAGEL: Early last week we were well aware of the threats. When I was in NATO, again, there was a meeting specifically about the threat with the NATO/Ukraine commission.

WELNA: Hagel was asked by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham whether the U.S. would send arms to Ukraine if the Russians marched toward Kiev.

HAGEL: That would be a presidential decision and he would make that decision and we'd (unintelligible).

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: I hope it doesn't happen, but I just want Russia to know that we're not going to sit on sidelines forever here.

WELNA: Meanwhile, speaking to reporters at the Capitol, House Speaker John Boehner blamed the Ukraine crisis on steps not taken by the U.S. during the Obama administration.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: But given where we are, we're here in a bipartisan way trying to work with the president to strengthen his hand, and the majority leader's working with our committee chairs on a bailout package.

WELNA: As for the austere defense budget, Secretary Hagel called it in line with spending limits Congress has insisted upon.

HAGEL: This is not a business as usual presentation. It is a budget that begins to make the hard choices that will have to be made. The longer we defer these difficult decisions, the more risk we will have down the road.

WELNA: Hagel did emphasize, though, that these were only recommendations. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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