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As his wife Lilibet holds the Bible, Chuck Hagel is sworn in as the 24th secretary of defense Wednesday by Michael L. Rhodes, DoD director of administration and management at the Pentagon. (AFP)
WASHINGTON — U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel pledged to take care of the Defense Department's military and civilian work force even as billions of dollars in defense spending cuts loom.
In his first address to the Pentagon work force as defense secretary on Wednesday, Hagel said the DoD needs "to deal with this reality" that about $46 billion in cuts, known as sequestration, are set to kick in Friday.
"We need to figure this out," Hagel said. "You are doing that. You have been doing that. We need to deal with this reality."
If hit with these spending cuts and a yearlong continuing resolution, which is $11 billion less than the Pentagon's planned 2013 budget, senior defense officials have said they would need to furlough most of DoD's 800,000 civilian workers over the next six months. Military pay is exempt from the sequestration cuts.
"Our budget problems here, if nothing else what we're dealing with, what you're dealing with, what we're all dealing with, is yes, dollars coming down; but it's the uncertainty of the planning, it's the uncertainty of the commitments, the uncertainty of what's ahead," Hagel said.
This budget uncertainty, defense officials say, has hampered planning and is an inefficient way of managing.
On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Hagel by a 58-to-41 vote. Hagel was sworn in as the 24th defense secretary Wednesday morning. He had meetings scheduled with senior staff, the service secretaries and at the White House throughout his first day on the job.
During his address at the Pentagon, Hagel pledged to "take care" of DoD's work force.
"I will do everything within my power as secretary of defense to be worthy of you and to be worthy of this country, and to do everything I can to make sure our people are taken care of, their families, our veterans," he said.
Hagel also pledged to support equality throughout DoD.
"I'm committed to … assuring that every person in the Department of Defense, associated with the Department of Defense, civilian or military, is absolutely treated fairly, honestly, equal benefits," he said. "Everything that each of you do should be dealt with on a fair and equal basis. No discrimination anywhere, in any way."
Despite the challenges facing DoD, Hagel said there are opportunities.
"I think it's important that we all stay focused, obviously, on jobs, on our responsibilities, which are immense, but not lose sight of the possibilities for a better world," he said.