NAVAL SUBMARINE BASE KINGS BAY, Ga (NNS) -- During a visit to the East Coast homeport for six Ohio-class fleet ballistic-missile and two guided-missile submarines July 9, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with 14 female submariners, toured the ballistic-missile submarine USS Tennessee, and took questions at an event with 180 Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen.
The secretary's stop here was the on first day of a two-day trip that includes visits today to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, home to the Air Force's first full squadron of F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter aircraft, and a stop at Fort Rucker, Alabama, the home of Army aviation.
Hagel is traveling to these southeastern U.S. bases to ensure the department stays focused on long-term concerns affecting American interests and allies in Asia, Europe and worldwide, Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said earlier this week in announcing the trip.
The submarine base is home to Submarine Group 10, Submarine Squadrons 16 and 20, the Trident Training Facility, the Trident Refit Facility, the Strategic Weapons Facility-Atlantic, and other support-providing commands. More than 8,000 personnel work at the base, including nearly 5,000 active-duty Navy personnel, 2,322 civilian employees and 1,298 contractors.
At the Kings Bay troop event, Hagel greeted an auditorium full of Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard service members, bringing them greetings from President Barack Obama and everyone at the Defense Department.
"We thank you for what you're doing [and] what you have been doing here. I know occasionally you might wonder if anybody is paying attention or cares," the secretary said. "We are paying attention. We know what you do. We appreciate what you do."
Hagel also sent thanks to their families and said the department appreciates their sacrifices. "We understand their sacrifices and we don't take those sacrifices for granted," he told the service members.
Hagel has made it one of his highest priorities to ensure the United States maintains a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent. This includes commitments to modernizing the nuclear enterprise infrastructure and maintaining a highly capable, skilled and motivated force.
In early January, Hagel traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for briefings at Kirtland Air Force Base and the Air Force Materiel Command's Nuclear Weapons Center, whose responsibilities include nuclear system program acquisition, modernization and sustainment for the Defense and Energy departments. While there, he visited Sandia National Laboratories, where scientists and engineers develop, engineer and test non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons.
The next day in Cheyenne, Wyoming, he visited the Missile Alert Facility and Launch Control Center, where he received briefings and had lunch with missile combat crew members and security forces.
Afterward, at nearby F.E. Warren Air Force Base, where the 90th Missile Wing operates 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, he held a troop event for 200 service members.
"I think it's very important that all of us who have some responsibility for the national security of this country pay attention to every aspect of that responsibility," Hagel said in Cheyenne, "and certainly the nuclear component of our defense capabilities -- the deterrence capabilities that nuclear gives us."
Also in January, Hagel also called for an independent review of the strategic deterrence enterprise as it relates to Defense Department personnel, and he since has continued to meet directly with officers and enlisted personnel who have day-to-day responsibility for carrying out that mission, senior defense officials said.
"I think you all know that I ordered an ... internal and external review of the nuclear forces a few months ago," Hagel said here yesterday. "Those internal and external reviews have come back. I've been briefed on the reviews."
The secretary added that he is working with DoD leaders to decide which recommendations the department will adopt to strengthen the health of the nuclear workforce, strengthen the nuclear enterprise and ensure that those involved in the enterprise have the resources they need to do their jobs.
Over the last 13 years as the United States was involved in two large land wars, "we let our focus on the nuclear deterrence aspect of our national security drift a little," Hagel acknowledged. "Because of that," he added, "priority was put on those wars in funding, leadership [and] attention."
The nation, Hagel said, must now "prioritize the importance of the nuclear enterprise and what you represent and the importance of what you do every day to deter aggression in the world and protect our country and protect our interests around the world. I want you to know that."
The secretary also told the service members about the hour he spent in a private discussion with 14 female submarine officers.
In 2009, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced that for the first time in Navy history, women would be assigned to serve aboard Navy submarines. The first contingent of 24 women who completed the Navy's nuclear submarine program met in May 2012 with the president and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. Today, more than 60 female officers serve aboard 14 crews on seven submarines, typically with at least three female officers per crew.
"It was really a tremendous experience for me to listen to these young officers talk about their experiences -- how proud they are to serve on submarines," Hagel said.
"The Navy has broken through on so much of this over the last three or four years," he added, "and as you know, we're in the process now of preparing to integrate enlisted females on submarines." In May, the Enlisted Women in Submarines Task Force began planning to introduce enlisted women into the submarine force over the next few years, officials said.
The submarine force also is in the process of assigning female officers to four Virginia-class submarines. In 2015, USS Illinois and USS Minnesota are scheduled to become the first attack submarines with female offices on board, DoD officials said.
Hagel is the first defense secretary to visit a ballistic missile submarine since women began serving aboard them in November 2011. Before he shook hands and took pictures with the troops, he invited them to step up to the microphones in the audience and speak their minds.
A Navy recruiting instructor from the Naval Submarine Support Center asked if sequestration budget cuts, scheduled to return in fiscal year 2016 unless Congress acts to stop them, would allow the department to continue to develop the replacement for the Ohio-class submarine. A senior chief petty officer from the Coast Guard Maritime Force Protection Unit asked Hagel what kept him up at night, given all the threats facing the United States.
The topics differed, but Hagel's answers arrived at the same destination.
DoD's plans call for 12 Ohio replacement ballistic-missile submarines to replace the 14 Ohio-class submarines now in commission. Because the new submarines will have shorter maintenance cycles and more capability, 12 new ships will replace the original 14.
The president's budget request meets DoD near-term needs, defense officials say, but it will be difficult, and perhaps impossible, to execute the shipbuilding plan if the harsh budget cuts of sequestration are implemented.
A key element of the shipbuilding plan is the Ohio-class replacement submarine.
"We have every commitment to the projections to bring on that new class of submarines," Hagel told the recruiting instructor. "Yes, it's forcing us to make some hard choices in our budget. But I've been clear on this, the president's been clear - all of our senior leaders - that we need a new generation of Ohio-class submarines, and we're going to prioritize that."
The naval submarine base and the expertise it represents will continue to be important for the nation's strategic interests, the secretary said.
But the budget cuts are presenting big problems, he added.
"There's only so much to go around," he said. "You can't get any more. So it's forcing us ... to prioritize. If we had more time to prioritize, ... it would be more responsible. But unfortunately, that hasn't been the case, and it will not be the case if sequestration continues to hold. But we are continuing to be committed to a new generation of Ohio-class submarines."
To answer the up-at-night question, Hagel went back to the budget.
"There are threats everywhere in the world, and many are external," he said. "But [we're dealing with] a lot of internal dimensions as well." The senior chief had mentioned the National Defense Authorization Act when asking his question. Hagel mentioned the defense budget in his answer.
"Sequestration has been devastating to this institution. It's something that our leaders and I work with every day trying to convince Congress to change," the secretary said.
"We've got a year or so to help inform and educate and try to persuade the Congress to change that," he continued. "If they don't change that, we are going to be faced with deeper and bigger cuts. We're continuing to be faced with deep cuts now. That's what I refer to when I talk about an internal challenge when you ask me what keeps me up at night."