By Phil Stewart and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Chuck Hagel has told Congress that if confirmed as the next defense secretary he would ensure America's military is prepared to strike Iran if necessary but stressed the need to be "cautious and certain" when contemplating the use of force.
Hagel's views were detailed in 112 pages of written responses to wide-ranging questions by lawmakers submitted ahead of his confirmation hearing on Thursday. In them, he also voiced support for a steady U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan.
It was unclear whether his comments would help blunt what is expected to be harsh questioning by mostly Republican lawmakers following a public campaign against his nomination by critics seeking to portray him as soft on Iran and anti-Israel.
Hagel, himself a former Republican senator from Nebraska, assured the committee that the United States would maintain an "unshakeable" commitment to Israel's security and voiced support for President Barack Obama's position that no options should be taken off the table to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That language is generally used to suggest the possibility of a military strike.
"If confirmed, I will focus intently on ensuring that (the) U.S. military is in fact prepared for any contingency," Hagel wrote, according to a copy of the questions and answers obtained by Reuters.
"While there is time and space for diplomacy, backed by pressure, the window is closing. Iran needs to demonstrate it is prepared to negotiate seriously."
Like other defense chief nominees before him, Hagel noted that he would use caution before committing troops to war. But he said his experience as an infantryman in Vietnam would inform his role as defense secretary, where he would be entrusted with winding down the conflict in Afghanistan.
The decorated Vietnam veteran, who fought alongside his younger brother, Tom, for 10 months that included the bloody Tet Offensive, told Congress: "I understand what it is like to be a soldier in war."
"I also understand what happens when there is poor morale and discipline among the troops and a lack of clear objectives, intelligence, and command and control from Washington," he wrote.
He said he would draw on that experience to "ensure that we are cautious and certain when contemplating the use of force."
As for Afghanistan, Hagel said he agreed with Obama's plans for a steady drawdown ahead of the end-of-2014 deadline for NATO to formally end the war, leaving behind a small contingent of foreign forces.
"At this time, I do not foresee any realistic conditions that would preclude this transition from being completed responsibly by the end of 2014," Hagel wrote.
Hagel is expected to have a tougher time with the Armed Services Committee, where he will testify on Thursday and which must clear his nomination, than in the full 100-member Senate, where Republicans hold 45 seats.
There are 12 Republicans on the 26-member panel, but many are among the Senate's most conservative members. At least three, including the panel's top Republican, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said they would oppose Hagel even before hearing his testimony.
Some Republicans view Hagel as a traitor for questioning the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq War, which he initially supported. Asked about "lessons learned in Iraq," Hagel noted the need for proper planning for post-combat situations, something even war supporters acknowledge was lacking.
"I believe we must think very carefully before we commit our Armed Forces to battlefields abroad," he said. "Our forces deserve policies and planning worthy of the sacrifices they make in combat."
Some Democrats and moderate Republicans, meanwhile, question Hagel's social conservatism, saying it raises concerns about how strongly he would support equal rights for women or homosexuals in the military.
In his written responses, Hagel said he fully supported gays and lesbians serving openly and outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's move to end the ban on women in front-line combat positions.
He also echoed Pentagon opposition to automatic spending cuts due to kick in on March 1 that he said would be "devastating" to the Pentagon and harm military readiness.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Philip Barbara)