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When Senator Hagel’s name first surfaced as a potential nominee for Secretary of Defense, I had genuine concerns over certain aspects of his record on Israel and Iran. Once the President made his choice, however, I agreed to keep these reservations private until I had the opportunity to discuss them fully with Senator Hagel in person.
In a meeting Monday, Senator Hagel spent approximately 90 minutes addressing my concerns one by one. It was a very constructive session. Senator Hagel could not have been more forthcoming and sincere.
Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.
In our meeting Monday, Senator Hagel clarified a number of his past statements and positions and elaborated on several others.
On Iran, Senator Hagel rejected a strategy of containment and expressed the need to keep all options on the table in confronting that country. But he didn’t stop there. In our conversation, Senator Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do “whatever it takes” to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force. He said his “top priority” as Secretary of Defense would be the planning of military contingencies related to Iran. He added that he has already received a briefing from the Pentagon on this topic.
In terms of sanctions, past statements by Senator Hagel sowed concerns that he considered unilateral sanctions against Iran to be ineffective. In our meeting, however, Senator Hagel clarified that he “completely” supports President Obama’s current sanctions against Iran. He added that further unilateral sanctions against Iran could be effective and necessary.
On Hezbollah, Senator Hagel stressed that—notwithstanding any letters he refused to sign in the past—he has always considered the group to be a terrorist organization.
On Hamas, I asked Senator Hagel about a letter he signed in March 2009 urging President Obama to open direct talks with that group’s leaders. In response, Senator Hagel assured me that he today believes there should be no negotiations with Hamas, Hezbollah or any other terrorist group until they renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Senator Hagel volunteered that he has always supported Israel’s right to retaliate militarily in the face of terrorist attacks by Hezbollah or Hamas. He understood the predicament Israel is in when terrorist groups hide rocket launchers among civilian populations and stage attacks from there. He supported Israel’s right to defend herself even in those difficult circumstances.
In keeping with our promises to help equip Israel, Senator Hagel pledged to work towards the on-time delivery of the F-35 joint strike fighters to Israel, continue the cooperation between Israel and the U.S. on Iron Dome, and recommend to the President that we refuse to join in any NATO exercises if Turkey should continue to insist on excluding Israel from them. Senator Hagel believes Israel must maintain its Qualitative Military Edge.
Regarding his unfortunate use of the term “Jewish lobby” to refer to certain pro-Israel groups, Senator Hagel understands the sensitivity around such a loaded term and regrets saying it.
I know some will question whether Senator Hagel’s assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post. But I don’t think so. Senator Hagel realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago. His views are genuine, and reflect this new reality.
On issues related to female and LGBT service members, Senator Hagel provided key assurances as well. He said he is committed to implementing the Shaheen amendment to improve the reproductive health of military women. He also supports the full repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
In general, I believe any President deserves latitude in selecting his own advisors. While the Senate confirmation process must be allowed to run its course, it is my hope that Senator Hagel’s thorough explanations will remove any lingering controversy regarding his nomination.
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U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Sunderman/ Released
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CORRECTION: Due to incorrect information provided by the Navy, an earlier version of this story stated that Adm. Greenert saw the Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System aboard helicopters on the USS Stennis this year. In fact, he saw the system while visiting a different aircraft carrier. The helicopters currently aboard the USS Stennis were equipped with 2.75-inch rockets.
What a difference a year makes. When Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief naval officer, visited the USS Stennis aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf last September, he returned saying that the strike group perhaps needed more "sawed-off shotguns" to go with all of that high-powered rifle firepower.
What the admiral meant is that the Navy was equipped with plenty of conventional long-range defenses in a body of water where they were more likely to face unconventional short-range threats -- like, for instance, a swarm of Iranian or terrorist-driven fast-attack boats.
According to Navy officials on Friday, much has changed, thanks in part to an urgent request to reprogram hundreds of millions in fiscal 2012 funding. The Stennis, for example, one of two aircraft carriers deployed to the Persian Gulf for a multinational countermine exercise this week, has now equipped its helicopters with 2.75-inch rockets to defend against small-boat threats.
When Greenert visited another carrier, the USS Nimitz, in the Pacific this July he was pleasantly surprised to see that ship's helicopters already had been upgraded with BAE's Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System (APKWS). Company materials boast the APKWS "turns a standard unguided 2.75-inch (70 millimeter) rocket into a precision laser-guided rocket to give warfighters a low-cost surgical strike capability."
That capability did not make it aboard the Stennis, yet, but in March, Greenert told Congress he expected to spend $250 million beefing up ships in the Gulf with these kinds of additions.
The Navy also added to the ships participating in the Middle East exercise more "Stalker" infrared sensor systems, which mount to ship masts which act as eyes that scan through the haze for fast approaching threats. The also added more wider-ranging Rover systems, another infrared surveillance capability put onboard helicopters that can beam whatthey see back to ship command centers.
On patrol boats that protect the big ships, the Navy added Mark-38 machine guns, and more boats are on the way to getting Raytheon's Griffin rocket system. In June, Raytheon reported that in winter tests on water a Griffin simultaneously hit three moving speedboats from more than a mile away.
In March, Greenert told Congress he expected to spend $250 million beefing up ships in the Gulf with these kinds of additions.
Additionally, the Navy armed sailors with additional anti-small boat training before their deployment.
How's that for a "sawed-off shotgun"?
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Raegen/Released
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Scott Pittman/Released
Pentagon policy chief Jim Miller said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's warning this week that Iran would have nearly enough bomb-grade uranium to build a nuclear weapon in six months does not change the U.S. assessment of the need for military action.
Miller, under secretary of defense for policy, in an exclusive interview with the FP National Security channel on Wednesday, said that enrichment was just one factor in the U.S. calculation of how long it would take for Iran to have a working nuclear bomb.
"The timeline, from our perspective, includes the question of how long it takes to enrich, and then how long it would take to go from a certain level of enrichment to weapons grade, and other steps in that process," Miller said. "And so, as we look at that potential timeline we certainly believe, as I said, that we have time."
On Sunday, as part of a blitz of U.S. media appearances, Netanyahu told CNN, "They're moving very rapidly, completing the enrichment of the uranium they need to produce a nuclear bomb. In six months or so they'll be 90 percent of the way there. I think it's important to place a red line before Iran."
But two days earlier, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Foreign Policy in an exclusive interview that U.S. and other intelligence agencies, including Israel's, agree that despite Iran's enrichment activities, Iranian leaders have not made the decision to pursue a bomb.
Miller would not distinguish which was the bigger threat, Iran reaching the capability for a potential bomb -- via enrichment -- or making the decision to try to build one.
"What intelligence basically tells us now is that they have not made that decision," Panetta said. "And that while they continue to do enrichment, they have not made a decision to proceed with a nuclear weapon. And I have to tell you that I think the intelligence community, whether it's Israeli intelligence or United States intelligence, has pretty much the same view."
U.S. intelligence officials believe they have one year to 18 months from that decision-point before Iran has bomb -- implying the Pentagon (or anyone else) has that long to attempt a preventive strike.
Netanyahu, however, cautioned against relying too much on U.S. or Israeli intelligence forecasts: "We've also had our failures, both of us. You know, you've just marked 9/11. That wasn't seen. None of us, neither Israel or the United States, saw Iran building this massive nuclear bunker under a mountain. For two years they proceed without our knowledge. So I think the one thing we do know is what they're doing right now. We know that they're enriching this material. We know that in the six, seven months they'll have got to covered 90 percent of the way for an atomic bomb material. And I think that we should count on the things that we do know in setting the red line."
Miller also threw his support behind the sanctions, which he argued are having adverse effects in Iran. "It may take some time before the Supreme Leader, before Iran makes the calculation," he said, of whether to give up its nuclear program or pursue the bomb.
On Wednesday, Miller toed the Obama administration line: "As we look at the intelligence, we believe that we have time and space to accomplish that, and the timeline that Secretary Panetta talked about is precisely right."
This week, Fereydoun Abbasi, chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, reportedly said Iran does not intend to enrich uranium beyond 20 percent, to the degree that would be required to build a bomb. Abbasi said the limited stocks of uranium Iran has enriched to 20 percent were for radiological medicinal purposes.
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Kevin Baron reports on the people and policies driving the Pentagon and the national security establishment in The E-Ring.