By Kristina Wong and Jeremy Herb - 03/31/14 07:00 PM EDT
The Topline: The Asia pivot is still on, and defense officials are citing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s upcoming 10-day trip there this week as proof.
“The rebalance is real. We are following through on the rebalance, and this whole trip is an embodiment of that,” said a senior defense official, who briefed reporters at the Pentagon on Hagel’s trip on Monday.
Questions arose over whether President Obama’s shift of U.S. attention and military assets to the region would happen in light of defense budget cuts, especially after a defense official said last month that the Asia pivot “candidly, can’t happen” during an aviation defense conference.
“The rebalance is at the front and center of our national security strategy,” a senior defense official said.
The trip will be Hagel’s fourth trip to the region as Pentagon chief, and there’s a packed agenda. The secretary leaves tomorrow for an informal meeting with 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministers in Hawaii, where members will discuss revising their defense roles in the region.
After two-and-a-half days in Hawaii, the secretary will move on to Japan, where he and his counterpart there will discuss bilateral security issues, such as relocating a Marine base from Futenma to another part of Japan, as well as progress on installing a second defense missile radar there to defense against a North Korean threat.
After Japan, Hagel will visit China and Mongolia. In China, Hagel is expected to discuss the military-to-military relationship and issues that will include cybersecurity and intellectual property theft, North Korea’s recent firing of missiles into the Western Sea, and other issues of concern.
In Mongolia, Hagel will thank officials for their contributions to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Officials finalizing list of military aid for Ukraine: Ukrainian officials have asked the U.S. for a list of military equipment and aid, and officials are finalizing their decision, according to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“The interagency is going through the last cuts of decision-making on what additional assistance the United States would provide,” Hagel told reporters at a Pentagon briefing on Monday.
Over the weekend, 300,000 Meals-Ready-to-Eat packets the U.S. had promised Ukrainian officials arrived in Ukraine.
Items under consideration include clothing and medical equipment, and other non-lethal aid.
Hagel would not confirm reports that the Russian military has pulled back from the Ukrainian border, saying that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have made it very clear that it was a condition of further meaningful conversation with Russia about resolving and deescalating the crisis.
Still, on Friday evening, Hagel decided to cut short a trip to Washington by his top commander in Europe to attend an upcoming NATO conference in Brussels.
“I think it was the smart thing to do to have him go back in light of his importance to NATO, especially with the NATO foreign ministers meeting the next two days,” Hagel said.
Navy anti-smoking fight heats up: Lawmakers are giving Navy Secretary Ray Mabus a mouthful as he considers whether to ban the sale of tobacco on Navy bases and ships.
A group of five Democratic senators wrote to Mabus in a letter released Monday where they urged him to adopt the ban.
“We commend your efforts and hope that you will move forward with this initiative, which will renew emphasis on the health of our dedicated sailors and Marines as well as provide for increased combat readiness,” Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Jack Reed (R.I.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) wrote.
But Mabus is also hearing from at least one lawmaker who says the Navy shouldn’t prevent sailors from buying tobacco products.
In a letter to the secretary, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a retired Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he was opposed to the proposal limiting or restricting “access to legal products that servicemen and women choose to purchase on their own.”
Mabus could also have the backing of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who did not endorse the plan Monday but seemed to lend support to the idea.
“I think it does need to be looked at and reviewed,” Hagel said at a Pentagon press briefing. “I think we owe it to our people.”
Breedlove departure puts wrench in hearing schedule: The House and Senate Armed Services crowded hearing schedule was thrown a curveball this weekend after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed U.S. European Command chief and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Philip Breedlove back to Europe.
That left a big hole in this week’s hearing schedules for the House and Senate panels, which were likely to press Breedlove on U.S. plans in Europe after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
In the Senate, Breedlove was scheduled to testify with U.S. Transportation Command chief Gen. William Fraser on Tuesday, but that hearing was canceled.
In the House, however, the committee is keeping the hearing with Adm. Cecil Haney, chief of U.S. Strategic Command, and Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. Forces Korea.
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