Officials: Military Budget Cuts Won't Weaken Ability to Protect America

Top Pentagon brass says the U.S. military will act if needed, despite looming sequestration constraints.

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon March 28.

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ARLINGTON, Va. - Possible budget cuts that could severely harm the military's ability to fight do not constitute a "free pass" for America's enemies abroad, the Pentagon's top tactical and financial chiefs said Wednesday.

The Department of Defense rolled out a $526.6 billion budget for FY14 Wednesday afternoon, which did not take sequestration into account. The across-the-board cuts will take place if Congress cannot reach a budget deal with the president.

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The budget, which accommodates roughly $150 billion in cuts over the next 10 years, is based in part on the White House's strategy of ending the war in Afghanistan and shifting the military's efforts to the western Pacific. It also comes at a time of heightened tensions with North Korea.

"North Korea has been, with its bellicose rhetoric, with its actions, has been skating very close to a dangerous line," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said. "Their actions and their words have not helped defuse a combustible situation."

The hermetic country under the rule of Kim Jong Un remains a mystery to many in the West, including doubts if Kim is ultimately responsible for communist nation's clash with South Korea and its allies.

"He is unpredictable," Hagel said of Kim. "That country is unpredictable."

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North Korea has successfully tested two nuclear devices, as well as a series of ballistic missiles. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says its capacity to create a nuclear weapon remains classified.

"In the absence of concrete evidence to the contrary, we have to assume the worst case," he said.

"As far as knowing what Kim Jong Un is about: We're having a press conference [Wednesday] about the Defense Department absorbing hundreds of billions of dollars in reductions for the good of the American people so that the United States of America can get back on a more solid economic foundation," said Dempsey. "And what is Kim Jong Un doing? He's starving his people with a military-first policy. It's pretty hard for us to figure that out."

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Those in charge of funding the U.S. military are "flat-out stressed at the moment," said Robert Hale, the chief financial officer for the Department of Defense. But he added that offers no advantage to those who would attack the U.S. or its allies.

"I don't want to suggest to the North Koreans they get a free pass there," he said. "We will protect the readiness of the forces on the Korean peninsula and any forces that are deployed."

"Given what's going on, I sure don't want to leave the impression in the minds of any of our potential adversaries that this is an opportunity for them. We're going to be there if we have to be," he added.

Hale pointed to line items in the newest budget that he says demonstrates America's commitment to the White House's Asia strategy.

The newest budget allocates almost $2.4 billion for four new Littoral Combat Ships, at least one of which will deploy to Singapore. It also lists over $2 billion to build 21 new EA-18G Growler attack fighter jets, and almost $1.5 billion for building more Trident II missiles, among other precision weapons.

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