Media Availability with Secretary Hagel at the Defense Nuclear Weapons School on Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico

Press Conference

By:  Charles Hagel
Date: Jan. 8, 2014
Location: Kirtland Air Force Base, NM

PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY: Okay, guys, we've got about 10 to 15 minutes. I think the secretary's just going to start with a couple of words about what he got a chance to do today and -- and then we'll open it up.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Well, first, thank you for taking a couple of days to travel with me.
I think it's very important that all of us who have some responsibility for the national security of this country pay attention to every aspect and area of that responsibility.
And certainly the nuclear component of our defense capabilities -- the deterrence capabilities that nuclear gives us -- and as I have said in the past and believe firmly, that nuclear deterrence has probably had a lot to do with keeping peace in the world since World War II.
No -- no World War III; I mean, we've had wars, but none on the scale of what we saw in the first half of the 20th century.
I've said, too, and -- and believe one of the reasons specifically I came out here today and where we're going tomorrow is that the American people have to be assured of the -- of the safe and secure and reliability of -- of the nuclear component of our -- of our national security.
And I wanted to come out especially to Sandia National Labs to look at what they're doing out here because modernization, research, development -- that technological edge that we have been able to maintain is critically important, especially in the world that we're in today with more complications, more combustibility, more dimensions that technology in particular has driven than ever before.
I was very impressed with what I saw today. I was impressed with not only the technical capability but the people -- the skill sets that are always required in any institution, but particularly in this area of nuclear weapons, nuclear modernization capabilities, research development; we need to continue to be able to recruit and keep the cutting edge minds in the world on our team on this.
And I was impressed with the kind of people I met today -- what they're doing, how they're doing it; their commitment that they have made to this country and to the future of the country -- and they do it, like all the people in this institution, because they understand the privilege of helping make a better world.
So, those are some of the reasons I wanted to, in particular, come out here today and why -- and why I wanted to go up to Cheyenne tomorrow and spend some time there, as well.
So, let me stop there and open it up.
Q: I've got a nuclear question for you. We're in the midst of a big -- or at the start of a big sort of recapitalization program for the whole complex.
You've got, you know, the upgrade -- the modernization of the B-51 bombs and you've got new need for a new nuclear submarine, new ICBMs, new long-range bomber -- penetrating bomber; it's all going to cost a great deal of money. I think CBO said $355 billion every 10 years; some folks yesterday said a trillion over 30.
Do we really need all of it now at once? And if so, how do you justify it, given the tight budgets right now?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, budgets are always a predominant dynamic of anything and we're not immune to that, as you all know.
As I've said, and we all understand, first we will be presenting a budget to the Congress here very shortly. We've had to and -- and it's -- it's important we do prioritize our resources and where we're going to apply those.
Where is that resource base and that investment going to do the most good for us -- for our country, for our safety, our security, short-term and long-term? So, yes, we're going to have to make some choices here as we go forward.
On the exact numbers of what estimates are, I mean, I don't know what the exact numbers are. Yes, to modernize your -- your -- your nuclear weapons stockpile and assure that they continue to stay secure and safe, it takes money; it takes resources.
We -- this country has always been willing to make that investment and I think we will continue to make it. I think the Congress will be a strong partner in this.
I'm often asked many questions by members of Congress, of both parties in both houses, about nuclear modernization -- about our investment and our commitment.
So, I look forward to that continued conversation and we'll get into the specifics of that when -- when I present our budget here, probably within next two months.
Q: Can I ask you a quick question about tomorrow? You're going to not only talk to some of the folks up there at Warren but you're going to go out and see those guys who are operating the launch control center and the security forces who protect it and so forth.
And -- and, you know, you've often described yourself as a sort of a people person who thinks about the lives of those who are in uniform, not just the technology and the hardware and the budgets and so forth.
So, in that context, I want to ask you, you know, it's often described as a question about the health of the force. Within the ICBM force in particular, there's been indications...
SEC. HAGEL: Yeah.
Q: Of some morale issues and other, you know, attitudes of -- of these guys who sometimes describe themselves as underappreciated...
SEC. HAGEL: Yeah.
Q: For what they do and -- and not fully rewarded for what they do. I mean, they don't get combat pay, they don't get deployment pay; that sort of thing.
Are you considering any kind of a financial measure, incentives in the short-term to -- to make this a more attractive line of work for them?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, Bob, I appreciate your question because it is an important question. It cuts across many areas -- we -- and you just noted some.
And I've read all your stories. You've been particularly focused on -- on these things. And I -- I don't know if I've read them all, but I've read most of them.
And this is an area that, in particular, that we have to pay attention to first to acknowledge to them, to these men and women who do this kind of work -- and it's -- it is lonely work.
And I think you're right; they do feel unappreciated many times. They're stuck out in -- in the areas where a lot of it -- not a lot of attention is paid. And I know they wonder more than occasionally if anybody's paying attention.
So, that also was one of -- of my intentions -- is to acknowledge that when I'm there tomorrow, as I did today, and thank them; tell them how important their -- their work is.
It is important. It's as important as it's ever been. We need to continue to recruit the best, brightest young minds that we can -- committed young people.
You might recall when I was in Omaha for the change of command ceremonies at STRATCOM [U.S. Strategic Command] in November, I met with a dozen of these young officers whose assignments are all in these areas -- pretty lonely jobs.
These were very impressive young men and women who are committed to this work. And I went around the table and I ask them, "What motivates you? What is it that -- that makes you do this?"
And they were very honest with me and they said -- because I asked about their futures. And -- and they were very honest and most of them said that they were unsure.
Well, morale is a huge part of all this. You know, when you -- when you add up sequestration, no budget we -- that we've had -- we now have some predictability for two years, but it's only two years; we shut the government down for 16 days -- now, that alone isn't everything, but it adds to all this uncertainty and unpredictability.
So, focusing on -- on not just morale but the purpose of what they're doing and why they're doing it -- acknowledge it's important -- and it is important -- and -- and get some feedback as to why they do it.
I don't know if it's necessarily a matter of -- of increased compensation or bonuses. I don't know.
I think these people are not in it, first of all -- no one is in uniform -- Admiral Kirby, I don't think; General Abrams, everybody with a uniform around this room -- everyone in uniform I've ever met is a professional; they -- they don't do it just for the high pay and compensation.
They do it because there's a purpose to it. And not that pay and compensation is unimportant -- it's not; when you're raising a family and -- and you've got obligations, it's not.
So, no, the answer is I'm not looking at anything immediately. We -- we may want to look at things.
You know, we have a compensation commission that's out there that's going to report back later this year on the entire structure of our pay and compensation. They may have some ideas.
But I think it's not so much a -- a pay compensation issue. I just think it's a -- these young, smart people wonder, "What I'm -- what I'm doing with my life -- is it important? Does it make a different? Am I appreciated? Do people really care?"
And I think that -- that psychic reinforcement is -- to any of us -- is really important and -- and that sort of responsibility I think our leaders have, starting with me.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Mr. Secretary, as you know, former Secretary Gates is coming out with memoir that's pretty critical of the Obama administration -- in particular, the president's management of the war in Afghanistan.
Do you think that it's legitimate for a former secretary who has been brought into the confidence of the president to, once he leaves office, take shots at the commander in chief, especially when it comes to war management?
SEC. HAGEL: I've not read the book. I -- I guess it just came out, so -- I mean, I've seen reports, but that's all I know. That's number one.
Two, in my career, everything I've ever done, whether it was in the Senate or anything else, I've never second guessed motivations on why people do things.
Or when I was in the Senate for 12 years, I never second guessed how somebody voted. I never told anybody how to vote; I never told anybody what to do.
So, I leave all that up to each individual. Each individual does what they think is -- is the right thing to do.
I've tried to lead my life that way and try to do things I've done in my life based on what I thought was the right thing to do. So, I would leave it at that.
Q: So you don't think there's anything inherently wrong with...
SEC. HAGEL: I didn't say that. I said I think it's up to each individual to make that judgment on his -- on his or her own.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: He's got time for two more, please.
Q: OK, Secretary, I'd like to continue on some of the questions that you got at the town hall today...
SEC. HAGEL: Yeah.
Q: In San Antonio. You know, all the questions seem to focus on concerns about pay and compensation and the -- the talk about making some reductions there.
And it seems like there's a -- there's a lot of uncertainty in the force on -- on an individual level as to what's...
SEC. HAGEL: Yeah.
Q: What's coming down the pipe. And I -- I wonder if -- if you look at the COLA [Cost of Living Allowance] reduction, that seem to come from Capitol Hill entirely kind of out of nowhere, so to speak. And I'm wondering...
SEC. HAGEL: Yeah.
Q: You know, who ultimately is going to resolve this uncertainty for the troops and the questions surrounding pay and benefits?
Is it going to be something that -- that the Hill is going to hammer out or do you think ultimately that the department is -- is going to step up with, you know, very specific ideas and try and drive that decision making?
SEC. HAGEL: Yeah. Well, everybody knows that the Hill, as you said, or the Congress is -- is a particularly important partner in all of this for reasons we all understand.
As I said this morning, Chairman Levin has noted he's going to hold hearings on -- on this issue. I -- I suspect there will be other committees that will hold hearings on this issue specifically, obviously focused on COLAs -- COLA-minus-1 exemption or lack of an exemption for disabled.
But I -- I suspect it's going to get wider and deeper than that. And it should, because the Congress needs to be part of this debate on should we change our compensation programs; do we need to? How should we do it?
As I mentioned, you all know there's a commission out there that's working on this now. They'll come back later this year with their recommendations.
We're looking at it -- have been internally. I've been spending a lot of time with the chiefs on this, senior enlisted, and getting their thoughts on what they think is the answer as we go forward, because the real issue here is can we sustain what we have.
And it is -- it is a -- as you accurately say it, it is a growth rate issue here. And it isn't going in and cut a current benefit but it -- but it's essentially slowing the rate of growth as -- as to one possibility as to how you -- you would approach this.
But as I also said, I think -- and I think there are a lot on Capitol Hill -- that you and -- and President Obama and I have talked about this, along with Chairman Dempsey, on a number of occasions.
You can't come at it just with one piece -- one piece at a time or continue to keep unraveling or bring this thing back every year, or every other year because that is -- that cuts right to the -- the uncertainty, the unpredictability and the concern that our people have.
"What are you going to do to me next? You did this last year. Now -- now I was counting on this. Now two years later, maybe you're going to do something else."
It has to be complete examination of -- of the entire package -- of everything. And then if a decision is going to be made to amend that in some way, then it should be done with the completeness and the full benefit of -- of -- of time and thought that would go in -- into it.
And it should be done once -- once. I mean, does that mean into eternity? No, of course not; but it certainly should hold for a number of years.
Because we do know enough, based on our numbers here and our actuaries on this, that it's going to be very difficult to sustain the entire pay, compensation, retirement package we have without having it impact significantly our -- on our technology and research accounts and our readiness and just bringing our forces down and -- and -- and our assets down.
I mean, it's just -- you -- it's just going to happen. So, we're going to have to deal with this. I believe I've said that.
We're taking our time -- it can't be done unilaterally, arbitrarily. The president knows that. That's why I think the commission's important; Congress is very important; hearings on this are important; having the chiefs involved in this right from the beginning, as they have been, is important.
So, that would be my answer because it's -- it's all those components together, I think, as we -- as we try to assess the basic question -- can we sustain this without really cutting into the readiness and (inaudible)...
Q: And you think this question -- you would -- you've envisioned this question being hopefully resolved during your tenure here?
SEC. HAGEL: Well...
Q: That's a longer -- potentially longer term problem.
SEC. HAGEL: No, I would hope that -- that if I have the -- the privilege of serving in -- in this position for the president's -- the remainder of the president's tenure, which is essentially three years, I would hope that we would have some resolution of this within -- within that framework.
And I intend to provide leadership on this. I've said that. I know it's a highly emotional issue; it's a tough issue -- of course it is.
But I think we can -- we can come up with the right answers on this and be fair to everyone and not violate any commitments or principles we've made to these men and women who make tremendous sacrifices for this country.
Q: Thanks. Thank you, John.
I was wondering about the -- the deterrents -- the nuclear deterrents you were talking about earlier.
Do you -- do you think we'll always have to have the nuclear deterrents? Can you think of -- do you see another way to have the same deterrents without -- the same effect without using nukes?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, I'm and always have been very much a realist. I'm an optimist, as well, but I also understand the -- the reality of the kind of world we live in.
I think as we look back over past presidents' administrations, I think every president since Nixon has advocated -- some have been very strong advocates -- of reducing the nuclear stockpile with the Soviets, then Russians later, and us.
As you remember, in 1986, Ronald Reagan said to Gorbachev, "Let's just eliminate them." I don't see the foreseeable future that happening, unfortunately, because we're not going to disarm. We can't just unilaterally cash in our nuclear chips.
So, this has to be worked, just like each of those treaties that had the -- had been worked by all of our presidents -- modern presidents -- to try to get those stockpiles down to keep reducing, reducing -- and then reduce the threat.
But unfortunately, I think the reality is that we're going to continue to need a nuclear deterrence for our future. But that doesn't mean that we can't continue to come down, I think, and still protect our country and our security and still have a strong deterrence value from other countries continuing to be a threat with their nuclear capabilities.
It -- it is interesting that the -- that two countries where -- where we see -- and I think most of our allies -- the biggest threat to our security, certainly, and others -- North Korea that continues to promote and do everything it can to increase its nuclear weapons capacity and the whole issue about Iran is about nuclear capability.
So, in the case of Iran, I mean, we're working on that now. And -- and that is the wise course of action. Will something come out of the P5-plus-1? I don't know.
But I think is the -- stay strong. It -- it is the slogan: "Peace through strength."
As -- as long as we have the strongest national security system of any nation in the world and we continue to keep that modern and strong, then we should also continue to promote that deceleration and bringing down the -- the threat of nuclear weapons; do everything we can to work with our partners on that.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay, thanks, guys. We're going to have to get going now.
SEC. HAGEL: Take care. Thank you.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Thanks for coming.
Q: Thank you.
SEC. HAGEL: Yeah, yeah. Appreciate you guys coming out on this because I -- I do think that this -- it gets to Bob's point -- this issue itself, but the people who work it deserve some attention. So, we're glad you're here.
Q: Thanks for having us.
Q: Yes, thanks so much.