WASHINGTON — The Air Force's top official predicted Tuesday that Chuck Hagel's surprise resignation as Pentagon chief will not steal momentum from his plan, announced only 18 days ago, to make top-to-bottom changes in how the nuclear Air Force is operated and managed.
"I am not concerned" about losing political push for the ambitious Hagel agenda, which includes spending billions of dollars on nuclear forces over the coming five years in an era of tight defense budgets, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told The Associated Press.
She said she had briefed President Barack Obama on the Air Force portion of the changes announced Nov. 14 by Hagel, who had ordered two in-depth reviews to diagnose the problems and recommend solutions. Hagel said the probes found deeply rooted problems caused in part by "mounting stresses" on the nuclear equipment and the troops who operate it.
"We are all on board that the changes need to happen and that it can't be a one-shot deal for one month or one year," she said in her first extensive public comments since Hagel submitted his resignation Nov. 24. "Rather, we all have to keep on it."
The Air Force has already redirected hundreds of millions of dollars to its nuclear forces. James said the administration is still putting together its priorities for the president's 2016 budget plan and the Pentagon's five-year spending blueprint to be unveiled in February.
"This is where Secretary Hagel predicted -- and I think it's a good prediction -- that you're going to see even more resources, it will go into the billions of dollars that end up being redirected to the nuclear enterprise," she said. "But of course until it's done it's not done. So that's why we are continuing to say that we're working on it," with final decisions coming within weeks.
She said that if Ashton Carter is nominated by Obama as Hagel's successor and confirmed by the Senate, as appeared likely Tuesday, he could be expected to support the Hagel-announced efforts as well as the reforms the Air Force has already begun to implement. Hagel designated his deputy, Robert Work, as his point man for implementing the changes.
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