Jess Floum/Medill News Service Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel defended the president's spending priorities and actions in the Ukraine. The top Pentagon official testified before a Senate committee Wednesday.

Jess Floum/Medill News Service
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel defended the president’s spending priorities and actions in the Ukraine. The top Pentagon official testified before a Senate committee Wednesday.

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey Wednesday supported the Obama administration’s diplomatic approach to de-escalation in Ukraine during unremitting questioning on Capitol Hill.

“This is a time for wise and steady and firm leadership. It’s a time to stand by the Ukraine people and their sovereignty,” Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Testifying at a defense budget hearing, Hagel and Dempsey urged restraint on the part of the Russian military in hopes of reaching a diplomatic solution to the escalation of Russian military presence in southern Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula–a region heavily populated by Russians.

“Russia’s actions remind us that the world remains unpredictable,” Dempsey said. “The world will continue to surprise us, often in unpleasant ways.”

Dempsey and Hagel also strongly endorsed Obama’s proposed Fiscal 2015 defense budget – set at $495.6 billion, basically unchanged from the current year.

“The president’s defense budget is strong and it’s realistic,” Hagel said.

They said spending cuts to the military could invite threats to national security and America’s status as the best-prepared and best-equipped.

Hagel said the base budget falls $45 billion short of the $541 billion the Department of Defense had expected for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

The budget would allow the military to fulfill its defense strategy, but would increase the level of risk, Hagel said. The Pentagon can manage the risks during the coming year, Hagel said, but sequestration-mandated across-the-board cuts in 2016 would significantly increase the risk.

President Obama signed a bipartisan spending agreement in December that will ease spending cuts through the end of 2015 but leave 2016 susceptible to sequestration.

Hagel committed to taking care of service members by providing them with the best military equipment and weapons, fair compensation, unchanged retirement plans and housing subsidies.

“These commitments would be seriously jeopardized by sequestration,” Hagel said, adding that the current path toward sequestration would also threaten America’s national security and military standing.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., again put Hagel–a fellow Vietnam veteran– on blast, questioning the U.S. military’s size and readiness compared to other countries. The senator highlighted China’s recent commitment to increase defense spending by 12.2 percent, the conflict in Syria, and North Korea’s missile tests–the latest on Tuesday.

“I don’t think it’s in dispute that this budget will give us the smallest army since prior to World War II–admittedly more capable, but certainly the smallest” he said.

McCain also questioned the Defense Department’s intelligence capabilities in advance of  Russia’s intervention  Crimea last week. Hagel said he could not discuss intelligence specifics at an open hearing but assured the committee the Pentagon became aware of the threat early last week.

Committee members also questioned the Defense Department’s decisions to close domestic military bases and also to cut back on certain military equipment.

“I can assure you that the president of the United States puts the defense of this country as his highest priority,” Hagel said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., emphasized that Congress and the White House were responsible for the budget difficulties the Pentagon faces.

Graham questioned whether national security interests dictated the troop sizes laid out in the Pentagon’s most recent defense strategy, or if the Defense Department reached conservative estimates due to budget constraints.

“If it were entirely budget driven we would have accepted the levels of sequestration and adjusted our budget accordingly,” Dempsey said. “We said that’s too much.”

Although Hagel and Dempsey praised President Obama’s efforts to balance the budget, the Defense Department requested an additional $26 billion in FY 2015 and that funding exceed congressionally mandated budget caps by $115 billion over the next five years.

The hearing marked the opening round of a long process that will end with the Armed Service Committee sending a Defense Authorization bill to the full Senate consideration.