WASHINGTON — As U.S. military leaders continue to sound the alarm about how deep Defense Department spending cuts would decimate military operations, Sen. Daniel Inouye and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa say they will work to keep Hawaii programs off the chopping block.

In a House Armed Services hearing on Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned members of Congress that further cuts to defense would “badly damage” the U.S. military.

Panetta talked about the importance of an “agile, deployable, effective force” that can respond to any number of threats facing the United States.

“To be agile, aren’t we looking at different types of forces?” Hanabusa, a member of the committee, asked him. “If you’ve got a limited amount of resources, what rises to the top?”

Panetta’s response: “You’ve got to be damn flexible, and that’s what we’re going to have to be in the future.”

The threat of defense cuts is real. If Congress’ so-called super committee tasked with cutting $1.2 trillion in federal spending by Thanksgiving fails to come up with a plan, the Defense Department faces about $500 billion in automatic cuts that would take effect in January 2013.

The Defense Department spent $10 billion on Hawaii last year, the most money per capita of any state.

“It really is a concern for me about how do we preserve the significance of Hawaii’s strategic location plus the (funding) commitment,” Hanabusa said in an interview with Civil Beat on Tuesday.

Inouye said that in discussions of Defense Department spending, it’s important to put the federal money that Hawaii receives in a larger context. Much of the $10 billion has to do with transportation costs, for example, because of Hawaii’s remote location, he said.

“Most of the monies… they’re not really involved in the economy of Hawaii,” Inouye told Civil Beat in an interview last week. “It costs money to fuel an aircraft carrier, so it shows up because the ship is stationed in Hawaii. That’s a Hawaii cost. Well, that should not be part of a formula to say the people of Hawaii have benefitted from that.”

But Hanabusa said protecting the flow of federal defense money for Hawaii is less about parsing out what specifically benefits the state, and more about highlighting the state’s strategic importance of the Pacific.

“Hawaii is critical for the Pacific, and the (military) theater into the future is the Pacific,” Hanabusa said. “Think about it, the three greatest economies in the world are in the Pacific: The United States, Japan and China … But more importantly than that, what we all need to recognize in terms of the military is that also our greatest threat is in the Pacific. People don’t like to point them out but China is (militarily) building up like no one else is building up.”

Hanabusa described a map that she said she once saw in the office of Lt. Gen. Duane Thiessen, commander of the Marine Corps Forces Pacific. The map featured Hawaii in the center, with the rest of the world around it.

“You see that Pakistan and Afghanistan — where we are focusing in terms of counterinsurgency, counterterrorism — that’s all touched by the Pacific,” Hanabusa said. “Think about it, Osama bin Laden gets killed, where do they dump his body? In the Pacific.1 And where does that ship first port? Hawaii. Where a lot of us grew up, the map of the world flat against the wall was land-centric, Euro-centric and North America-centric, so the Atlantic became the focus. But when you think about it, the Pacific is absolutely huge. We think of the Middle East as the other end of the world, but in actuality it’s part of the Pacific.”

Hanabusa said that many key decision-makers are already aware that Hawaii’s location makes it critical, from a defense standpoint, to the United States. But she also said that she and others are still fighting Hawaii’s reputation as being only a resort destination. Officials who visit military facilities in Hawaii may then understand why those facilities need funding, but some officials’ reluctance to visit Hawaii keeps them away.

“There is always a concern about the perception the press has about people going to Hawaii,” Hanabusa said. “But people have got to recognize Hawaii for its strategic location, recognize that (the Pacific Missile Range Facility), for example, on the beautiful island of Kauai, is one of our front lines for missile defense.”

Then there’s the broader issue from those who want to see military funds reduced, and use Hawaii’s vacation-spot reputation as a way to discourage spending money on military operations there, Hanabusa said.

“When you have people who feel that way, they look at Hawaii — not because they don’t agree that it’s strategically located — but it’s just another way to slam us,” she said.

The fact that Inouye is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, as well as chairman of that committee’s Defense Subcommittee, adds a layer of reassurance.

“Some of us say publicly and privately that Sen. Inouye is a major component of our economy, and he is,” Hanabusa said. “It’s that skill set, being able to maneuver through the budgeting. Of course, being chairman of (the Senate) Appropriations Committee is a major component of that … The Pacific is important to us as a nation, whether or not you’re looking at it in terms of just security, our allies, and so forth.”

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