New Defense Chief Addresses Massive Cuts

New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to service members and civilian employees at the Pentagon. New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to service members and civilian employees at the Pentagon. Cliff Owen/AP

Newly installed U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday said the nation's armed forces now face the "reality" of implementing across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect in two days.

Hagel issued the warning within hours of taking the oath to assume the Pentagon's top post and less than a day after the Senate confirmed his nomination in a 58-41 vote.

The former GOP senator told a Pentagon audience he would not "dwell" on the challenge posed by spending reductions mandated under the 2011 Budget Control Act. The cuts are scheduled to reduce defense funding by roughly $46 billion from March 1 to Sept. 30 failing an unlikely last-minute save by Congress and the White House.

"That's a reality," Hagel said in his first remarks at the Pentagon as the department's new leader. "We need to figure this out. You are doing that. You have been doing that. We need to deal with this reality."

"What we're all dealing with is, yes, dollars [are] coming down, but it's the uncertainty of the planning, it's the uncertainty of the commitments, the uncertainty of what's ahead," Hagel later added. In a separate written statement to Pentagon personnel, he pledged to "work within the administration and with Congress to help resolve this uncertainty."

Hagel was set to confer on Wednesday afternoon with top military officers as well as officials at the White House, according to a Defense Department press release.

The service chiefs of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and National Guard on Tuesday highlighted the threat posed to U.S. military capabilities by the imminent budget sequester and the scheduled March 27 expiration of a continuing budget resolution for fiscal 2013.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told lawmakers his branch would protect flight activities linked to its "nuclear deterrence" mission from the looming budget cuts.

Still, the spending curbs would "impact every one" of the Air Force's modernization efforts if they remain in place into fiscal 2014, he said during a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee. Last month, Donley suggested the automatic cuts could endanger plans to develop a next-generation strategic bomber.

In a Tuesday statement, President Obama welcomed Hagel's confirmation and said he would rely on the Pentagon chief's advice and leadership in maintaining U.S. readiness "to meet the threats of our time."

Hagel faced strong Republican criticism over his past comments in support of further U.S. nuclear arms reductions and against unilateral sanctions intended to curb Iran's disputed atomic activities. Only four GOP senators voted in favor of his appointment.

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