By LOLITA C. BALDOR
HONOLULU — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met Thursday with troops at Hickam Field in Hawaii on the way to his first visit to Asia as defense chief.
The weeklong trip will take him to Singapore and then to Brussels. Hagel plans to deliver a speech to a national security conference in Singapore, bringing allies up to date about the Pentagon’s heightened focus on the Asia-Pacific region.
Former defense chief Leon Panetta spoke to the conference last year, describing plans to assign 60 percent of the Navy’s fleet to the Pacific even as he acknowledged ongoing budget problems. It’s now up to Hagel to reaffirm that commitment, despite the continuing U.S. budget crisis.
Congress has been unable to agree on any plan to avoid automatic budget cuts that will slash about $487 billion in defense spending over 10 years.
Already this year, the military services have had to curtail flight and combat training, ground some Air Force squadrons and delay or cancel some ship deployments.
And the Pentagon has announced it will furlough about 680,000 civilian employees for up to 11 days through the end of the fiscal year, allowing only limited exceptions for the services to avoid or reduce the unpaid days off.
Hagel told troops they will all have to do more with less, and he said the Pentagon must look at personnel costs as it looks to meet budget cuts. Hagel stood in front of an F-22 Raptor fighter jet inside an airport hangar as he spoke to about 200 troops from across the services.
The conference will be a comfortable reunion for Hagel. The Republican former senator from Nebraska was a founder of the Shangri-La Dialogue conference 11 years ago and has spoken there several times.
North Korea will be a focus of the conference, as will Hagel’s private meetings with defense leaders from countries in the region. Over the last several months, Pyongyang has ratcheted up tensions in the region with increasingly hostile rhetoric and threats, even against the U.S.