Hagel skirts question on submarines

During a long, tough confirmation hearing, Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel deftly avoided being pinned down on the number of new submarines he thinks the Navy needs, despite prodding by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

At Thursday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Blumenthal asked Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, if he supported the replacement of a dozen Ohio Class nuclear submarines. Electric Boat in Groton won the initial contracts to upgrade those subs.

“I strongly believe that the cost will increase … and we will be at severe risk” if a dozen subs are not modernized, Blumenthal said.

“On that issue I would want to talk to our chief of naval operations and get a better understanding of our budget,” Hagel responded.

Hagel has advocated sharply reducing the number of U.S. nuclear weapons.

Blumenthal said he hoped Hagel would “come back to us on that issue.”

Undeterred, the senator asked about 10 new Virginia Class subs also slated to be constructed by Electric Boat.

“There’s a threat that it could be reduced to nine … I think that number should be 10,” Blumenthal said.

Once again, Hagel did not want to get pinned to a number.

“Senator, I will commit to what we have committed to carry out, what we need to fund and develop and build in order to maintain the kind of modern Navy we will require,” Hagel said.

Blumenthal also joined conservative Republicans opposed to Hagel’s nomination, including Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, in asking Hagel why he was one of 12 senators who didn’t sign a letter affirming Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

“I would have signed it, and it would be wise if you reconsidered expressing your support of Israel,” Blumenthal said.

But Blumenthal said he was pleased with Hagel’s commitment to review the dishonorable discharges received by Vietnam vets who suffered from post-traumatic distress disorders and his willingness to crack down on sexual assaults in the military.

Blumenthal has not said how he will vote on Hagel’s nomination, but he’s expected to support it, as is the state’s junior senator, Chris Murphy.

But most of Hagel’s former GOP colleagues won’t, citing Hagel’s controversial statements on Israel and his early opposition to the latest war on Iraq.