MODERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, the secretary of defense, the Honorable Chuck Hagel. (Applause.)
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Good morning. You guys are at ease. I remember as an old sergeant -- there you go -- I've never done that before. That's -- that's pretty good, isn't it?
Thank you for having me. Thank you for allowing me to say a few words and come out and get my picture taken with you. And thank you for what you're doing. I don't have to tell you the kind of world that we live in today, the complications and the dangers. You're a very big part of helping keep our world secure and safe, stable, not easy. But it's worth doing.
I've always admired anyone who makes the armed forces their career, if for no other reason than you've figured out in your life a purpose. And not everyone can say that. So I want you to know how much we all appreciate the work you do.
I know also it's a great sacrifice for each of you with your families, but I don't have to tell you it's worth doing and your families are proud of you. We're going to do everything we can to continue to support your mission and your efforts and everything you're doing. These are defining times in the world. These are exciting times, dangerous times, but I don't know of a time for any of us to be part of something so important than right now.
You know, each generation has an opportunity to make the world better and contribute and do things, but your generation is truly part of building a new world order. And I don't think we've seen this kind of a reality and this kind of effort being put forward, nor this kind of a complete upside-down world order since the end of World War II. And what you do here and how you're doing it and your lives and your careers are going to have a tremendous impact on how this turns out, as this new world order is built.
So thank you for doing this. Thank you for giving me the privilege of being part of your team and coming out here today. I've had an interesting five days here in the Middle East. And this is my last stop after visiting five countries. We'll go back tomorrow.
Always, it's important to come out and see firsthand and listen carefully and closely to the men and women who are doing the job out here. And I very much appreciated this time out in your area. You get a little closer to what's going on and get connected better with what you're doing and how I can help you and how everybody in our enterprise can help you do your jobs better in every way we can.
Give my thanks to your families and my best regards to your families. I know how proud they are of each of you.
Now, I'd be glad to respond to questions if you've got some advice for the secretary of defense. I'm very open to that, and I welcome that. So we've got a few minutes, I think, before we take some pictures, and I'd be glad to respond to anything I can and anything that you want to talk about. Want to also acknowledge your commanding officer and all those who have responsibility of these important units out here for their leadership and what they're continuing to do for our country and our efforts.
So, general, chief, thank you each, as well as all the leaders out here in this operation.
So who wants to -- who wants to start? Anything you want to talk about. Yes?
Q: Mr. Secretary, thank you for taking my question. (Inaudible) . Recently, servicemen and women saw tuition assistance suspended and then restarted. My question is, what, if any, changes can we expect to see in fiscal year '14 to that program?
SEC. HAGEL: Tuition assistance is an important program for all the reasons you know. When I was in the Senate, I was a strong supporter -- I think all of Congress is. All of America understands the importance of it. We have reinstituted it, as you have noted, sergeant. We'll continue to make it a priority.
But in the scope of the budget realities that you all are familiar with, we are having to make some tough choices to comply with budget cuts that are significant. I wish we didn't have to do that, but we do.
So what I have to focus on, as all of our leaders, first, the readiness of the men and women who are out on the front lines and support you and your mission and what you're doing. That's number one, is to support you in your mission in every way we can. We won't cut that.
Then we've got to go from there. How then do we fairly distribute these cuts without cutting into our operations, without cutting into our maintenance? And we're balancing that now. Not easy. We'll get through it. But these are difficult -- difficult issues.
So tuition assistance, it's important. It's a priority. You all understand it. We do. But in the first scope of this, sergeant, when we made that initial decision based on those initial numbers, we had to assess what was highest priority. And I just gave you what the highest priority was. As important as tuition assistance is, will continue to be -- it was not at the same level of supporting our readiness of you all.
But, again, I say, not to minimize the importance of that program -- it is important, we will fund it, and we'll continue to fund it. Thank you.
Where are you from, sergeant?
Q: (Inaudible), sir.
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you.
Who else has a -- a question? Yes.
Q: (off mic)
SEC. HAGEL: How do I see the shift, did you say? I'm sorry. I didn't get the last part.
Q: Yes, sir. What do you see the Air Force doing -- particularly the Air Force, but the military as a whole -- to make that transition from this AOR to the Pacific?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, the larger context of your question was regarding our rebalancing of our focus with our assets around the world. As you noticed and noted in your comments, we are unwinding our -- our major combat presence in Afghanistan and we have unwound our presence in Iraq. And we have made the assessment -- and I think correctly -- that -- and, by the way, these assessments are constantly changing based on the world, based on dangers, based on assets, based on interest, based on allies. And so the world is not static; I don't have to remind any of you. It changes hour to hour, minute to minute.
So our job in the Department of Defense, a leader's job, President Obama's job, all of your jobs, is to protect our country and to assure our interest in the world, and security is the anchor to that. So that policy, as we rebalance our focus, has rebalanced more assets to the Asia Pacific, which I think is exactly right.
All our services, including the Air Force, will continue to have a very, very, very significant role in that. How can it be otherwise? We will -- we will shift in varying ways presence in operations, depending on what the threat is, depending on how we want to project power, and that is all part of a continual assessment.
So the Air Force in particular, the question you asked about, will continue to play an important role, if for no other reason than projection of power. And I think where we want to continue to go -- Secretary Gates talked about this, Secretary Panetta talked about it -- is a flexible, agile military.
The threats are shifted. Ten years ago, I don't think very many people in this room would have talked much about cyber warfare or -- or the cyber threat. Even five years ago, it was a different world. Obviously, non-state actors, Islamic fundamentalism, terrorists, the coordination of those terrorists, interests that go below the surface, these are not coming all or mainly from state threats, from nation-state threats. Most of these threats are coming from non-state actors.
And so that is shifting not only our balance of assets, but our -- our strategic interests and the strategies that protect those strategic interests and the tactics then that employ those -- those strategies. So our Air Force, our Navy, our Marines, our Army, Coast Guard, all remain -- will continue to remain vital parts of our security interests.
You may be spending more time in the Pacific. Not a bad assignment.
Did somebody else have one? Yes.
Q: Sir, thank you. (Inaudible). Quick question on the note of sequestration, with the 17 squadrons that are being temporarily stood down until the end of the fiscal year. What is your prediction on the possibility of an agreement being made prior to the end of the year to keep the squadrons flying? And if not, how do you view our CMR status up to the end of the fiscal year?
SEC. HAGEL: An agreement on what?
Q: The flying hour program to keep the squadrons flying, get them flying again, get the 17 units that were stood down.
SEC. HAGEL: Well, as I said, these strategies and our programs and our policies and where we think our needs are, and then the operations to fulfill those requirements, are in constant review. I opened up our Q&A here this morning and answered a question about tuition assistance by referencing the budget limitations.
Now, budget should never, ever hold hostage a nation's interests -- should never hold hostage a nation's security. But budgets are all part of what we live with, and so we have got to adjust and adapt to the reality of those budgets. And, yes, it will affect some of our missions. Yes, it will affect some of our strategies and how, in fact, we protect our interests and our strategic interest, in particular, and then how we adapt with our tactical operations.
So we'll continue to review and shift, but, again, I say, this is all anchored by the absolute requirement of having a ready force, an adaptable force, a flexible, agile force, and a committed force. And I said when I became secretary of defense -- I think every secretary of defense has said this, is committed to this, as all your leaders -- the one asset an institution has that's more valuable than anything else, its people. And you take care of your people. You have to take care of your people.
And we're committed to do that first, because it won't matter how many planes you have or ships you have and how sophisticated the equipment if the people aren't right, if the people are not committed, if they're not of quality. And our force is our highest priority.
Another question? Yes.
Q: Sir, (inaudible) deployed out of (inaudible), California. Speaking about strategic interests, sir, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the economic sanctions against Iran and what your assessment of their effectiveness is.
SEC. HAGEL: Well, I believe that our policy regarding Iran is the correct policy. We are employing all the tools that wise, great powers employ when dealing with issues and challenges and dangers. And so we are working the diplomatic track. As you noted, we're working the international sanctions -- economic sanctions track. On Iran in particular, those economic sanctions against Iran are the most effective, most international, most penetrating economic sanctions that I think have ever been employed against a country.
And we do know, by every measurement, every metric applied, that it is doing significant damage to Iran's economy. It is having an effect inside Iran. You use all the other dimensions, the threat, always, of the military option. You build an international consensus, which we have done, using the international economic sanctions. You build especially a consensus with your regional partners, which you're doing out here. And you take the entire universe of these capabilities and assets and you focus them.
The military option in these situations is always an option, but I believe -- I think the president -- I know the president believes this -- that should be the last option. And I don't know if all of these efforts that we're applying in dealing with Iran, one being international economic sanctions, will, in fact, change their attitude about what we think is their objective moving toward a nuclear weapon, possibility of delivering that weapon. I don't know if what we're doing will shift their thoughts or their approach.
But we have the time. We have the assets. We have the international community. We are working toward that end. So I think those sanctions have been effective. I think they'll continue to be effective. We can continue to do more, but it's important to remember, as I said, the international consensus in these kinds of dangerous efforts is very, very important. And we continue to build that international consensus.
GEORGE LITTLE: (off mic)
SEC. HAGEL: Okay, George. George Little, very famous man over here. You've all seen -- he's our assistant secretary for public affairs. He's the spokesman. He has everything just right all the time. And he's willing to stay for four or five hours and answer questions. Isn't that right, George? If you --
MR. LITTLE: (off mic)
SEC. HAGEL: Yeah. Guys, I am grateful personally as an American citizen for what you're doing. I'm proud as secretary of defense to be your leader. And I thank you and your families, especially, for the sacrifices you're making for our country and the efforts that we're all making to make a better world.
Now, if you all want to do some photos, I'd be very pleased if we wanted to get a picture. Thank you.