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Remarks by Secretary Hagel at a Troop Event, Fort Rucker, Alabama

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Location: For Rucker, AL

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Thank you. Thank you, General. Good afternoon to all of you. I appreciate (off mic) I want to (off mic) I also (off mic) thank you.

SEC. HAGEL: (off mic) priorities fits into a larger strategy for the security of this country. What you do here is essential, and I think it's been pretty clear. I saw it firsthand when I was in Vietnam in 1968 and saw some of the photos on the wall of what we used to refer to as Eagle flights. I was in the infantry, and they would take -- the helicopters would take us into remote areas and jungles where we couldn't get into, and the helicopter would hover about four to six feet off the ground, and we would jump out of the helicopters. And then five or six days later, we would find our way out of where we were.

So I -- I established a very significant appreciation for what you all do very early on in life. And I saw amazing courage and commitment from all of you and those who went before you. And that was, in your opinions, not anything special. It's just who you were, what you did. And that was just expected.

And I think often that's taken for granted, but I want you to know, with this secretary of defense, it's not. And I know our leaders in all our services feel the same way. I know President Obama feels the same way. So, thank you.

Let me tell you a couple of things about what I'm doing, not just here, but -- here the last couple of days. I was at Kings Bay yesterday, spent a little time with the submariners and taking a look at what we're doing there and getting a better sense of where they are, what their needs are, what their concerns are. I was over at Eglin Air Force Base last night and this morning to spend a little time with the F-35 pilots and take a look at what's going on with that new platform, important platform. Then I wanted to get over here to kind of connect with what you're doing.

In fact, before I started my meetings today here, I spent about a half-hour on the phone with a number of governors who know a lot about this place for obvious reasons, because their National Guard pilots get trained here, and they know exactly what you do here.

So I try to get out as much as I can, as often as I can, to different bases, not just here in the United States, but around the world to meet with the men and women who serve our country and do so much. One of the points I made at Eglin today, as well as at Kings Bay yesterday, was the connection in light of all that's gone on in the world, and you, I know, have a pretty clear appreciation for what's going on in the world, our budget problems here, which are very real, which are forcing us into making some hard choices, but how does all that add up? I mean, what do we and how do we prioritize our interests, our responsibilities within the limits of our resources, and also within the context of the reality of what's going on in the world? A complicated world, dangerous world, I don't think it gets any less complicated. I think the world gets more complicated, probably more dangerous.

And so what our jobs are is to project forward in how do we continue to prepare this institution to secure this country. As we think through every possible option, contingency, how do we reset our forces? How do we re-posture our forces? How do we use our platforms? How do we continue to modernize? And how do we stay ready and agile?

And there are about three components to that that I want to just mention to you, because I know more than occasionally you probably questioned what's going on in Washington. Is anybody paying attention? Do we really know what we're doing? I won't comment on that specifically.

But I will tell you, yes, there is a -- there is a lot of thinking that goes into a strategy about, how do we deal with all this? First, people. I talked about this, this morning and yesterday. We must always put an emphasis on people. And you know why. It's quality people that always make a difference. You can't have an institution that is meaningful and relevant and the kind of institution to defend this country that the American people expect and they deserve without quality people. So focusing on the health of our force, focusing on our people is always the first priority.

Second, it's capability. If we ask you do to the jobs that we ask you to do, then we owe you some things. And we owe you the commitment to present and provide the cutting-edge capabilities that you need to do your jobs. That's the second priority that we've put into the mix.

The third is something that we have been focusing on the last couple of years in building partnerships. You know -- many of you have had a number of tours, both Iraq and Afghanistan. You know about partnerships. Many of you have been in Europe. Many of you have been all over the world and dealt with many of our partners around the globe.

To help build partnership capacity, help our partners become more capable is critically important to our interests, to their interests, and security in the world. We can't do it all. We will never be able to do it all. Can't do it. Never could do it.

So what we've got to do is not only prepare ourselves and do the smart things strategically and make the tough, but smart decisions to continue to build out to protect our country and our interests, at the same time, help build out the capacity of our partners. And we're doing that.

I got the question today over at Eglin about, are we as spread around the world as we have been before? Are we withdrawing for parts of the world? And the answer is no. We're in about 100 countries. And our platforms are more capable than they've ever been. Our capability is far beyond any time in the history of our business, the capability we have. Our people, man for man, woman for woman, individually, better trained, better equipped, motivated, first of all, because you're in an all-volunteer force. You wouldn't be here unless you wanted to be here, unless you believed in something pretty important.

All these dimensions are critical to not just what we have today, but most importantly, how do we continue to sustain these kinds of critical assets for our country? And I was thinking, flying in here today, what you do here, especially the senior leadership here, as you pass on and you instruct and you shape and define the next generation of leaders behind you, that is an integral component of anything and everything. And that's your biggest job. That's my biggest job, that whoever comes after me, and every senior member of all of our forces, it's the biggest responsibility is, yes, you deal with what you got today, deal with that crisis, deal with that problem, but you've got to do something just as important, and that is continue to build and improve on what you inherited and what you got.

And you do it down here about as well as any place I've seen, because it is continually shaping and reshaping and defining and redefining what you're doing. Aviation is shifting. I don't have to tell you that. The decisions that we're making to not just simplify, but be smarter about how we train, what platforms we train on, moving those seven models to four, we can do it better, smarter, put more into training. Eventually we can do it cheaper. That helps actually the National Guard. That helps certainly all of us and you, as active members. The training that that also helps provide to our partners who come here and get training, all of this fits together.

I mention these three components, because it is part of the strategy that we have that we go forward with. We're recognizing, have to, with the immediate problems that we've got today. The Middle East is blowing up. We've got new issues in Afghanistan, with the election question, issues almost everywhere in the world.

But that cannot consume us to the point where we're paralyzed in thinking through strategically, where do we want to get to down the line? And how do we adjust and shape our forces? Training is a big part of that. So thank you for what you do.

I know you've got a lot of questions. I know there's a lot of uncertainty out there about, where is all this leading as far as budgets? What's my future? What's my family's future? I know that. I'm aware of it. I listen closely to commanders, our senior enlisted, and I want to assure you, again, that the health of our force is our top priority.

And so I'd be happy here in the next couple minutes -- I know we've got some time here, General -- to take any questions on any issue that you have. But I mainly wanted to have an opportunity to thank you for what you do every day and your families do every day for this country. We are very grateful to you.

So who wants to ask a question?

Q: Sir, Staff Sergeant (off mic) from Aviation Center of Excellence (off mic) and the question I have is, with the military transitioning to a force of quality versus quantity, what is being done to make up for the lack of personnel when the next conflict arises?

SEC. HAGEL: For the lack of personnel in --

Q: Yes, sir.

SEC. HAGEL: Well, thank you. I don't think it's a matter of lack of personnel. That's not what we intend to do or that's not what we intend to allow to happen. We'll still have a fully not just capable force in every service, but we'll have the capacity in numbers, as well.

Historically -- and you all know this -- when this country comes out of war, and we're ending -- or we're transitioning out of the longest war we've ever been in -- we've been at war for 13 years straight. This country has never done that before. This country's never done that with an all-volunteer force.

So after every major conflict, there's always a resetting. There's always a reposturing. There is always an examination of, how do you handle not just the current threats and the realities you're dealing with in the world, but to the future, to your question?

I would also remind us of this. It's something that I alluded to. When I -- when I've heard comparisons that our Army might get capacity-wise to the lowest point it's been since right before World War II, well, quantifiably, maybe that's true -- I don't know if that's true -- but we're still going to have a big Army and we're going to have still big Marine, Navy, Air Force departments.

But let's just take that comparison. Does anybody seriously believe that you can honestly realistically equate a soldier in the United States Army in 1940 to a soldier in this Army, as far as capability, capacity, technology, weaponry, training, leadership, motivation? Come on.

So I don't buy into just a quality or quantifiable capacity-to-capacity, number-to-number. Our ships, our platforms, our helicopters, it is a whole different world. The capability we have, we can do more things than ever before, with actually fewer numbers. Now, capacity does matter. You can't ever allow a force to get too low. Of course not. And we don't intend to do that.

But we are balancing that. And the fact is, when we've had the kind of numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan that we have had over that 13-year period, of course you're going to bring some of that down, not in any great numbers. We're talking about reductions in manpower. The Army has obviously the biggest, in terms of manpower. Those percentages are around 12 percent overall over a number of years.

And when you look at the big numbers we're talking about, 480,000, depending on how bad sequestration gets, if the Congress doesn't change sequestration, then we're going to be faced with more reductions, because we won't have any choice. We won't have any choice. It's either that or just not buy anymore helicopters and new planes and new ships.

And I can't -- I can't do that. No secretary of defense can do that, because I would never send, nor would the president of the United States, any president, send a man or woman to war if we didn't think you were ready or capable. That'd be the greatest failure of leadership ever if we did that. And so we won't do that. But all these are factors that we're dealing with now.

But these reductions will be responsible reductions over time, unless sequestration holds into 2016, and then we are -- we are at a much worse situation. So I get exactly your question. And I, too, am concerned about that. We won't allow those numbers to go down to anywhere near any even questionable number -- do we have the capacity, will have the capacity.

Q: Good afternoon, sir (off mic) out of (off mic) question (off mic) sequestration (off mic) training and (off mic) how (off mic) your opinion (off mic)

SEC. HAGEL: Well, if sequestration continues -- and it is the law of the land, and it will come back in 2016, unless the Congress changes it -- and if that's the -- if that's the case, then it will affect -- it will affect everything we do and every decision we make, because that means that we'll go back to taking an additional $50 billion-a-year cut from our base budget. And that's in addition to a 10-year $490 billion cut that we're now implementing, and we've been implementing that over the last two years.

Last two years, we have been taking sequestration cuts. Last year, we took about a $37 billion cut. We had to furlough people. There was a government shutdown for 16 days that further complicated everything, hurt your training, hurt your operations. You were not able to fly, nor was anyone else in training. The Army wasn't able to train. Navy wasn't able to train. It hit our maintenance, our operations, and it hit all of our training, and directly affected our readiness.

This year, F.Y. 2015, there's a bit of a reprieve from sequestration, not a $50 billion cut. Next year we'll be taking probably a $35 billion cut. Now, that's better than $50 billion, but that's still a $35 billion cut. We don't take as much this year. Now, again, that's in addition to the $490 billion 10-year cut that we're already living through.

So, yes, if sequestration comes back, it is the law of the land. It will come back in 2016 unless the Congress changes it. And we have been making the case in our budget presentations, in all the committees, that they're going to have to do something about this, because it will affect everybody.

These cuts are affecting everybody now, but we can manage through them. We're not going to jeopardize the security of this country. But there's no other way to do it. If you continue to give us fewer resources, then something's going to have to go.

And quite frankly, what the Congress has been doing in -- in not accepting, really, any of our recommendations in our budget this year is making it more difficult for all of us, because where we will get here, if we don't get some relief, is we're going to have to just make some very abrupt cuts. And they won't be as thoughtful. We can do this now in a gradual way, bring it down, bring it down, bring it down. But if we're forced into sequestration again, where we've got no other recourse, then it'll get a lot tougher than it is.

But I'm hopeful that the Congress will do something about it. We're working with the Congress now.

Q: Sir, (off mic) from the Captain's Career Course. My question is about Iraq, and particularly ISIS, what options are being considered, and are there any points particularly for triggers for involvement in U.S. troops in combat operations.

SEC. HAGEL: Well, let me start this way. You've heard what President Obama has said, that we are not going to put combat troops back on the ground going back into Iraq as -- as we were at one time. Now, that said, I think he's been very clear on that. I've said it. That's part of the answer.

The other dimensions of your question, you know that we've had assessment teams out in Iraq the last week. Those assessment teams will be finishing up here the next few days. They will be taking all their assessments and bringing together those assessments, those observations, those judgments based on those assessments. They will then be sending those assessments with options and recommendations to General Austin, who, as you know, is our CENTCOM commander.

General Dempsey and I have been receiving daily updates on those assessments. They're not anywhere near complete, but we are getting pieces. The president has said that strikes, airstrikes are options that he will look at. We're presenting those options to him. We're continually looking at various target options. As I think you all know, we now have over 50 ISR flights over Iraq. We have repositioned assets in the Persian Gulf. We are doing the things that we need to do to give the president options.

We will continue to look at those options. In the meantime, the political process is ongoing. You know that the government in Iraq is now essentially suspended, because they just went through elections or the elections were certified. And what is happening now is the process of forming a new government.

That new government must be inclusive. It must be a government that shares power. It must be a unity government. Sunni, Shia, Kurds, all must have a role in that government. It's what was intended five years ago, what was committed to by Iraqi politicians five years ago. And it never occurred.

The politician dimension of how the Iraqis govern themselves, it's their decision. It's not our decision. It's their decision. They are going to have to bring together their country in a way to govern in a responsibility in this power-sharing government.
We can help. We can facilitate that effort, but we can't impose from the outside. We can't dictate from the outside. We have limited impact, limited influence. But we are doing everything we can on a diplomatic front to assist as they form a new government.

In the end, that's what's going to be most important, because they need to be unified as to how they deal with ISIS and ISIL. ISIL, ISIS are very dynamic and real threats. They are in Iraq now. They threaten Iraq now. This was all part of the assessment that we'll get back from our team.

So the answer to your question, what are we doing about it? Those are -- those are some of the things that we're doing about it. It's serious. It's complicated. It has brought to the surface every ethnic sectarian division that has been part of that region of the world for centuries.

What we don't want to do is get in the middle of that and get ourselves drug into something that is not part of our responsibility. We'll help. We'll facilitate. We'll do everything we can to assist, and we are doing that now.

(STAFF): Sir, that concludes the questions today, but want to thank you again for joining us here at the Home of Army Aviation. I know you want to take a little bit of time to individually meet the soldiers.

SEC. HAGEL: Good, I do. And I, again, want to thank you. And be sure and tell your families how much appreciate everything they do. Thank you very much.


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