WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Friday that budget uncertainty, including $46 billion in new defense cuts, jeopardizes the Pentagon’s ability to effectively fulfill all its missions.
Hagel, appearing at his first Pentagon news conference since he was sworn in on Wednesday, said the cuts mean the U.S. Navy would gradually stand down four air wings, the Air Force would immediately cut flying hours and the Army would reduce training.
“Let me make it clear that this uncertainty puts at risk our ability to effectively fulfill all of our missions,” Hagel said, adding that while the cuts remain in effect “we will be forced to assume more risk, with steps that will progressively have far-reaching effects.”
Hagel struck a more moderate tone than many defense officials, who have said the spending reductions would be devastating or could turn the U.S. military into a second-rate power.
“America ... has the best fighting force, the most capable fighting force, the most powerful fighting force in the world,” he said. “The management of this institution, starting with the Joint Chiefs, are not going to allow this capacity to erode.”
“We will manage these issues. These are adjustments. We anticipated these kinds of realities, and we will do what we need to do to assure the capabilities of our forces,” Hagel said.
The secretary’s remarks came as the White House and Congress failed to reach a deal to avert $85 billion in looming cuts to defense and non-defense spending before a midnight deadline.
If no deal has been reached, President Barack Obama is required to notify Congress by midnight that “sequestration” has been triggered. That would mean the Pentagon has to slash $46 billion in spending through the end of the fiscal year on September 30.
Hagel said the Pentagon would place a priority on protecting spending for the Afghanistan war.
“The Army will curtail training for all units except those deploying to Afghanistan, adversely impacting nearly 80 percent of Army operational units,” he said.
Hagel said the department would issue preliminary notification later this month to thousands of civilian employees who will be required to take unpaid leave.
Officials have said most of the department’s 800,000 civilians would be affected, probably being asked to take a day off each week for 22 weeks beginning in April.
“I know that these budget cuts will cause pain, particularly among our civilian workforce and their families,” Hagel said, adding that he would continue to work with the administration and Congress to try to end the cuts.
Reporting by David Alexander and Phil Stewart; Editing by Sandra Maler