Below are the remarks, as prepared for delivery, of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) at this morning's confirmation hearing for Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel.

Stay tuned to Fox News Channel for coverage of the proceedings.

"Today the committee meets to consider the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. But before we begin, I want to first welcome Senator Inhofe as the new Ranking Republican on our committee, succeeding Senator McCain. Senator McCain has been a great partner over the last six years, and I thank him for all he has done to get our bills enacted, for all of his leadership on a host of issues, for his support of the work of this committee, and for always keeping our hearings lively! Senator Inhofe has shown his strong commitment to the national defense over his 20 years on the committee, and I know that we will work well together to continue the bipartisan tradition of the committee.

We are also pleased to welcome the eight Senators who are

joining the committee this year – both those who are new to the Senate and those who are new to our Committee – Senators Donnelly, Hirono, Kaine, and King on the Democratic side, and Senators Blunt, Cruz, Fischer, and Lee on the Republican side. You will find this that is a wonderful committee, where we work across party lines to support our troops and their families, and their national defense mission.

I would also like to pause for a moment to offer my thanks and the thanks of the Committee to Secretary Panetta, who delayed his retirement and his return to California, to serve our country – first as Director of Central Intelligence, and then as Secretary of Defense. Secretary Panetta has provided a steady hand at the Department of Defense through two very difficult years, and has earned our great respect and appreciation.

Finally, before we get started, I would like to announce that the committee will be holding hearings next week and the week thereafter on Benghazi and on the impact of a sequester on the Department of Defense.

Senator Hagel, we welcome you to the Armed Services Committee as an old friend of those of us with whom you served during your years in the Senate. There are few jobs that are more demanding than the position to which you have been nominated: the hours are long and extremely challenging, and require sacrifices from both the Secretary and his family. We traditionally give our nominees an opportunity to introduce their families at these hearings, and we would welcome your doing so during your opening statement.

If confirmed, Senator Hagel would be the first former enlisted man, and the first veteran of the Vietnam War, to serve as Secretary of Defense. You can’t read Senator Hagel’s account of his military service and not be impressed by it. As Senator Hagel explained a few years ago:

“[P]robably most fundamental for me . . . when we talk of going to war . . . we need to think it through carefully, not just for the political and the geopolitical and the diplomatic and the economic consequences – and those are important. But at least for me, this old infantry sergeant thinks about when I was in Vietnam in 1968 . . . . Someone needs to represent that perspective in our government as well. The people in Washington make the policy, but it’s the little guys who come back in the body bags.”

Senator Hagel’s background provides an invaluable perspective not only with respect to the difficult decisions and recommendations that a Secretary of Defense must make regarding the use of force and the commitment of U.S. troops overseas, but also with respect to the day-to-day decisions a Secretary must make to ensure that our men and women in uniform and their families receive the support and assistance that they need and deserve. It would be a positive message for our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in harm’s way around the world to know that one of their own holds the highest office in the Department of Defense and that he has their backs.

Senator Hagel, you would be in a position to make key recommendations regarding Afghanistan, where we are down to the pre-surge level of troops, with 66,000 military personnel in the country. The Secretary of Defense is called upon to advise the President on the size and mission of a post-2014 so-called “residual” force and the pace of the drawdown between now and the end of 2014. The key to this transition is ensuring the readiness and ability of Afghan security forces to take over the defense of their own country. I have always believed that should be our main mission and its key to success. During my trip to Afghanistan with Senator Jack Reed last month, we heard from U.S. commanders on the ground that Afghan security forces are operating on their own on most operations, including conducting more than 85% of operations with limited or no U.S. support in the difficult Regional Command East.

Yet, significant obstacles remain to the process of reducing our forces and shifting responsibility to Afghan forces, including the difficulty of negotiating a status of forces agreement, including recent reports that the Afghan government might slow down a successful program of growing and training the Afghan Local Police, and including questions about the current plan to reduce the size of the Afghan National Security Forces from 352,000 to around 230,000 after 2015.

We face a number of new and growing threats elsewhere, such as the ongoing threat posed by Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and the increasingly destructive civil war in Syria, with the risk that that conflict could result in the loss of control over that country’s substantial stockpile of chemical weapons. There is also the continuing instability in other countries affected by the Arab Spring, the growth of al Qaeda affiliates in ungoverned regions including Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa, and the continued unpredictable behavior of the nuclear-armed regime in North Korea.

We face these challenges at a time when the DOD budget is under unique pressure as a result of cuts previously agreed upon by Congress, the budgeting by continuing resolution, and the impending threat of a sequester. Secretary Panetta has said that a sequester would be devastating for our military. Senator Hagel’s views today on the continuing resolution and the sequester will be of great interest to this committee and to the nation.

Those of us who have served with Senator Hagel in the Senate know that he is a man who is not afraid to speak his mind. Senator Hagel has made a number of statements over the course of his career which committee members will ask him about during today’s hearing.

For example, Senator Hagel has stated that unilateral sanctions against Iran “are exactly the wrong approach,” and that the “worst thing we can do” is to try to isolate Iran. While effective multilateral sanctions are preferable, unilateral sanctions are an important part of the approach that the Obama Administration has followed and Congress has supported, and it appears that sanctions are producing tremendous pressure on Iran.

Another statement which has raised concern is Senator Hagel’s recommendation that we conduct “direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with the Government of Iran.” While there is value in communicating with our adversaries, the formulation used by Senator Hagel seemed to imply a willingness to talk to Iran on some issues that I believe most of us would view as non-negotiable, and therefore any willingness to talk to Iran would need to be highly conditional.

Your reassurance to me in my office that you support the Obama Administration’s strong stance against Iran is significant and we look forward to hearing from you in some depth on this subject.

We will also be interested in Senator Hagel’s addressing troubling statements he has made about Israel and its supporters here in the United States, a statement in 2008 that our policy of non-engagement with the Syrians “has isolated us more than the Syrians”, and a 2009 statement that we should not isolate Hamas – a terrorist organization.

There is much to be explored at this hearing. But as we struggle with the difficult security challenges facing our nation, the President needs to have a Secretary of Defense in whom he has trust, who will give him unvarnished advice, a person of integrity and one who has a personal understanding of the consequences of decisions relative to the use of military force. Senator Hagel certainly has those critically important qualifications to lead the Department of Defense."