US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, center, testifies March 5 before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C. (Jewel Samad / Getty Images)
A man with a Russian flag greets armed men in military fatigues blocking access to a Ukrainian border guards base. / Agence France-Presse
WASHINGTON — US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel fielded tough questions Wednesday from GOP senators on alleged US and NATO intelligence failures on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In a familiar scene, Hagel openly bickered with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., over lingering questions about whether the Obama administration and its European allies were unaware that Russian President Vladimir Putin was about to send troops into the Crimea region of neighboring Ukraine.
The nearly five-minute back-and-forth provided the most fireworks of an otherwise blasé Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about the Pentagon’s 2015 budget request.
GOP senators dinged Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey for a spending plan they charge would prevent the military from conducting all required missions because it would be too small and improperly equipped. Democratic SASC members offered tepid support to President Barack Obama’s hand-picked defense secretary, with several calling the defense budget plan the best blueprint that could have been crafted given federal budget caps imposed by Congress as part of deficit-reduction efforts.
But the spacious Senate hearing room filled with tension only once, when McCain came hard at Hagel with pointed questions about whether US intelligence agencies failed to predict the possibility of a Russian invasion amid the ouster of a pro-Russian regime in Kiev.
McCain sharply questioned how US and allied European intelligence services could possibly have missed a mounting invasion on Russia’s side of its border with its former Soviet-era satellite state, an incursion that included attack helicopters, large cargo planes, hundreds of armored personnel carriers and even tanks.
Hagel pushed back, and the one-time close friends and Senate colleagues — in an exchange as pointed as during the secretary’s 2014 confirmation hearing — bickered, several times loudly talking over one another.
Hagel, who last week was at NATO headquarters in Brussels, told McCain that he and other alliance leaders “were made well aware of this threat.”
McCain shot back that the Obama administration is guilty of a “total misreading of Vladimir Putin.”
Hagel and Dempsey also were asked about specific combat platform cuts proposed in their 2015 budget, including retiring the A-10 attack aircraft fleet.
Dempsey, an Army officer, told the platform’s lead proponent, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., whose husband flew A-10s, that he once was “saved” by an A-10. But, in short, he said something has to get cut given budget caps and the aging A-10 is ripe to leave the fleet.
Dempsey said F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, as well as sniper pod-equipped B-1 bombers, can carry out the A-10’s close-air support mission until its envisioned replacement, the F-35 fighter, comes online.
SASC Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., citing independent cost estimates, hit Obama for spending $125 billion on his “energy and environment agenda,” monies the senator says could have been used to buy more than 1,000 F-35s.
Members from both parties warned that the budget plan’s cuts could leave the military a bit neutered.
SASC Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he is concerned about “whether the resources that we are providing to the Department of Defense are adequate to enable our military to meet its national security missions.”
“Put simply, the spending caps included in” the 2011 Budget Control Act “seriously challenge our ability to meet our national security needs,” Levin said, referring to the law that created the decade-spanning defense and domestic sequestration cuts.
Republican senators hit the Pentagon leaders for, as they see it, siding with some in Washington who argue the country should not fight any new ground wars. McCain said similar incorrect arguments were made after past wars like Vietnam.
Dempsey distanced himself from that view, and he and Hagel repeatedly argued their latest budget plan would build a “balanced” force that could carry out the existing national defense plan — just with greater risk than without the cuts proposed due to the spending caps.
Some Democrats, like SASC Vice Chairman Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, attempted to provide cover for the budget plan.
For instance, Manchin complimented Hagel and Dempsey for building just the kind of budget plan they were asked to. ■