SASC Chairman John McCain Remarks on Top Defense Priorities for 114th Congress at CSIS

Washington, D.C. U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, delivered the following remarks today on the top defense priorities for the 114th Congress at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.:

“Thank you, John Hamre, for that kind introduction. And thank you for your continued leadership, and that of this great institution, on behalf of our national security. I always benefit from your wise counsel and that of so many others here.

“It has been almost 100 days since I became Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Now, I know some of you are anxiously counting down the days left, and I am well aware that this could be only a two year job. I would love to plan on more time, but that’s up to the American voters, in their infinite wisdom.

“For this reason, my goal is to make the greatest difference I can over the next two years, and I am fortunate in the partners I have in this endeavor. Chairman Mac Thornberry and I see eye to eye on most major issues. And I work very well with my Democratic counterpart, Senator Jack Reed, despite his lousy Army education. I also know that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who I greatly respect, is similarly eager to get as much done as he can in his own two-year job.

“All in all, I see this moment as an opportunity to make real progress and enact meaningful reforms that can enhance our national security. So today, I would like to describe my five top priorities as Chairman for the next two years. Then I would be happy to respond to any questions, comments, or insults you have.

“My first priority is the oversight of our national security policy. This strategic consideration must inform and drive all others. I recognize that we only have one commander-in-chief, which is as it should be, and there are clear limits to how much the Congress can push any President to adopt different national security policies. But where we believe that is necessary, it is our responsibility to make the effort—and to help educate our colleagues and fellow citizens about the gravity of our global challenges, as well as what they call on our country to do.

“In the past three months, the Senate Armed Services Committee has received testimony from many of America’s most respected statesmen, thinkers, and former military commanders. These leaders have all conveyed a similar message: We are experiencing a nearly unprecedented period of global turmoil. As Dr. Henry Kissinger told the Committee in January, quote, ‘The United States has not faced a more diverse and complex array of crises since the end of the Second World War.’

“It is fitting that this year marks the 70th anniversary of that war’s conclusion. It also marks the beginning of the Liberal world order that our predecessors, both Democrats and Republicans, lifted up from the ashes of that global catastrophe—a system of values, customs, laws, and institutions predicated on the principles of good governance and rule of law, human rights and democracy, open markets and the conviction that might does not make right, the strong should not be allowed to dominate the weak, and wars of aggression should be relegated to the bloody past.

“For seven decades, the Liberal world order that America and our allies have painstakingly built has expanded prosperity and kept the peace. This has happened, to be sure, because of the inherent appeal of our values, the material gains they foster, and the inspiration of our example. But ultimately, it has happened because we have backed our principles with our power. We have deterred aggression, defended allies, defeated adversaries, and built peace through strength.

“Now, as before, we should not view the threats we face in isolation. Taken together, they constitute the greatest challenge in a generation to the integrity of a Liberal world order. The question is, will we prove equal to our challenges again?

“On the one hand, these challenges take the form of strong nation-states with decidedly 19th-century views of the world. There is Russia, which has invaded a sovereign country and annexed its territory through force—the first time that has happened in Europe in seven decades. There is China, which claims vast swaths of the South China Sea, and which is now reclaiming hundreds of acres of land features that it will likely use for military or paramilitary purposes. And then, of course, there is Iran—which is on the offensive all across the Middle East, and whose proxies now occupy dominant positions in four Arab capitals.

“States like these, while different in many ways, possess similar hegemonic ambitions. They practice a zero-sum realpolitik, ascribing themselves exclusive rights in old spheres of influence. They embody a dangerous mix of nationalism and autocracy. And they are modernizing their militaries in asymmetric ways that aim to negate American power projection. Put simply, states like China, Russia, and Iran threaten to revise and roll back key tenets of the Liberal world order.

“At the same time, we face a rising threat from violent Islamist radicals that seek to erase borders, topple governments, and foment sectarian civil war. These terrorists and militants now control more territory in the Middle East than ever, and their reach is spreading deeper into Muslim communities in Africa and South Asia. The result is that a key strategic region of the world is descending into despotism, violence, and chaos. While some may wish to minimize America’s exposure to crises like this, history teaches us that we are ultimately unable to do so.

“In the face of these threats, our goal must be to shore up the Liberal world order. We recognize, of course, that this cannot be done through military force alone. We must use all elements of our national power, including our economic, diplomatic, moral influence. But acknowledging that there is no military solution, which is a truism, should not lead us to believe that there is no military dimension to the problem—or that hard power can play no role in a favorable solution. In fact, our soft power is the shadow cast by our hard power. That is how we deter adversaries, reassure allies, defeat enemies, and add leverage to our diplomacy.

“I believe it is the job of the loyal opposition not just to criticize current policy, but to propose constructive alternatives. We should define ourselves not just by what we stand against, but what we stand for. That will continue to be a top priority for me as Chairman of the Armed Services Committee. And I will look at all of the tools at our disposal—from hearings, to legislation, to committee-led reports—to help shape our country’s ongoing debate over national security policy.

“Ultimately, we need greater American leadership in the world, and Congress can only do so much in this regard. I imagine many of you are grateful for that. But what we can, and must, do is rebuild the bipartisan consensus in favor of a strong, internationalist foreign policy—the kind that enabled Republican and Democratic administrations to sustain the Liberal world order for seven decades. I am not too sanguine about the President’s willingness to chart a new course at this point. That must be a job for his successor, and it is my goal to lay as much groundwork as possible so that he—or she—can quickly adopt better national security policies.

“One way to do that, which we in the Congress are responsible for right now, is to end sequestration and put in place strategy-driven defense budgets. Doing so is a second priority for me as Chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

“Sequestration has done lasting damage to the capabilities, readiness, morale, and modernization of America’s armed forces. And each year since the Budget Control Act was passed, the world has become more dangerous, and the threats to our nation and our interests have grown. I do not believe this is a coincidence.

“Our senior military leaders have all testified to Congress that, with defense spending at sequestration levels, they could not execute the National Military Strategy, and American lives would be put at risk. The bipartisan National Defense Panel warned last year that America may soon find itself in a position where, quote, ‘it must either abandon an important national interest or enter a conflict for which it is not fully prepared.’ This is a crisis of Washington’s own making, and continuing to live with the unacceptable effects of sequestration is a choice.

“As you know, the Senate and House are debating our budget resolutions this week, and the issue of defense spending has been one heck of a fight—a fight, I am sad to say, that still divides Republicans. Winning this fight is my top priority. The good news is, more Republicans than last year feel the same way, and far more Americans than last year now view national security as their top concern. And who can blame them? The current budget resolutions reflect the reality that providing appropriate funding for defense is a growing priority for more Republicans.

“Still, this fight is far from finished, and Republicans like me will keep it up. We will continue to argue that we cannot meet our highest priority, to provide for national defense, at sequestration levels. We will continue to point out that we will never balance the budget through discretionary spending cuts alone. That is just math. And we will also continue to insist that Republicans cannot talk tough on national security but be unwilling to pay for it. One way or another, I am confident that defense spending increases are coming—hopefully because prudent arguments will prevail, but if not, I fear it will be in response to a national security crisis.

“A related priority is ensuring that the money we do invest in defense is spent wisely and efficiently. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Even in the teeth of sequestration, there is still wasteful spending. Let me offer just a few examples:

  • “The Department is currently studying the bomb-sniffing ability of elephants. Thus far, they have found that, while elephants are more effective than dogs, using them is impractical. No bomb-sniffing elephants have been fielded.
  • “Another example: Rather than purchasing local produce for U.S. troops in Asia, which is likely cheaper and fresher, the Department spends $48 million a year to ship $25 million worth of fruits and vegetables to commissaries in the Pacific.
  • “A final example: At the end of last year, the National Guard announced that it ran out of money and would suspend training for units around the country. And yet, the Guard still managed to spend $2.4 million last year to advertise with professional sports, including professional snowmobiling.

“When it comes to spending like this, where the military value is, shall we say … questionable, some of it is the fault of the Defense Department; some of it, however, is the legacy of old pork-barrel projects that Congress initiated. To be sure, even if we cut every wasteful program in the Department, we would still need to invest more on national defense than we are today. Still, we must root out this waste all the same. And it will be a priority for me as Chairman to do so.

“A fourth priority is acquisition reform. Chairman Thornberry and I are working closely on this, and I support many of the proposals he laid out here on Monday. At the same time, my hope is that we can also take some ambitious steps this year on which we both agree to make meaningful changes to our defense acquisition system. I believe the scale of the problem demands nothing less.

“Many of our military’s challenges today are the result of years of mistakes and wasted resources. According to one recent study, the Defense Department spent $46 billion between 2001 and 2011 on at least a dozen programs that never became operational. And what’s worse, I am not sure who, if anyone, was ever held accountable for these failures. In today’s vast acquisition bureaucracy, where personnel and project managers cycle through rapidly, everyone is accountable, and no one is accountable. That is one reason we are looking at how best to give the service chiefs and secretaries greater responsibility for acquisition, especially in shaping requirements and achieving results on cost, schedule, and performance.

“An even worse consequence of our failed acquisition system is the erosion of America’s defense technological advantage, which we are in danger of losing altogether if we persist with business as usual. That is why our failing defense acquisition system is not just a budgetary scandal; it is a national security crisis.

“The Defense Department is facing an emerging innovation gap. Commercial R&D in the United States overtook government R&D in 1980, and now represents 80 percent of the national total. The top four U.S. defense contractors combined spend only 27 percent of what Google does annually on R&D.

“The problem grows worse beyond our borders. Global R&D is now more than twice that of the United States. Chinese R&D levels are projected to surpass the United States in 2022. Even when the Defense Department is innovating, it is moving too slowly. Innovation is measured in 18-month cycles in the commercial market. The Defense Department has acquisition cycles that can last 18 years.

“Accessing sources of innovation beyond the Defense Department is critical for national security in the future, especially in areas such as cyber, robotics, data analytics, miniaturization, and autonomy. However, the defense acquisition system is leading many commercial firms to choose not to do business with the Defense Department, or to limit their engagement in ways that prevent the Department from accessing the critical technologies that these companies have to offer. Export controls, security mandates, and Buy America barriers also limit cooperation with our allies and global commercial firms. In short, the defense acquisition system itself increasingly poses a threat to our future military technological dominance.

“For this reason, we must create better incentives for innovation by removing unnecessary legislative and regulatory barriers to new commercial competition. We must also establish alternative acquisition paths to get innovative capabilities to our war fighters in a matter of months, not decades. Ultimately, we need an acquisition system that enables the Department of Defense to take advantage of the best minds, firms, and technologies that America, and the world, have to offer.

“At the same time, I will take an active interest in what priorities the Defense Department sets for its procurement of weapons systems. We have a lot of large and costly programs of record that have been many years, even decades, in the making. We need to review these programs closely in light of new threats. And we need to make the necessary investments now in next generation technologies that can enable us to outpace our adversaries. Those include cyber and space control capabilities, directed energy weapons, unmanned combat aerial vehicles, and our future power projection capabilities, especially the future of the aircraft carrier and the carrier air wing. I intend to be a champion for these kinds of new technologies.

“Acquisition reform is actually a large piece of an even larger priority, which is the final one I plan to focus on as Chairman—the structure, roles, and missions of our civilian and military organizations within the Defense Department. Much of this is the legacy of the Goldwater-Nichols reforms that Congress enacted 30 years ago. These reforms required a level of joint collaboration between the services that was sorely needed and never would have happened on its own. At the same time, three decades later, there are real questions about how Goldwater-Nichols has been implemented and what unintended consequences may have resulted. For example:

  • “Are the roles and missions of the Joint Staff, Combatant Commands, Joint Task Forces, and other headquarters elements properly aligned to conduct strategic planning, equip our warfighters, and maximize combat power?
  • “Does the vast enterprise that has become the Office of the Secretary of Defense further our ability to meet present and future military challenges?
  • “Does the constant churn of uniformed officers through joint assignments make them more effective military leaders, or has this exercise become more of a self-justification for a large officer corps?
  • “Is the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980 still appropriate for the joint force of 2015 and beyond, or is it time to review this law?

“I could go on. I want the Senate Armed Services Committee to conduct real oversight of questions like these during the next two years. It is long overdue, and I think the 30th anniversary of Goldwater-Nichols is a fitting time to start.

“My friends: I would be the first to admit that this is an ambitious set of priorities—strategy, budget, waste, acquisition and management reform. But I believe success in these areas is essential if we are to ensure that the Department of Defense is prepared to meet our present and future national security challenges.

“We have reached a key inflection point. For the past decade, our adversaries have been rapidly improving their militaries to counter our unique advantages. At the same time, our Defense Department has grown larger but less capable, more complex but less innovative, more proficient at defeating low-tech adversaries but more vulnerable to high-tech ones. The self-inflicted wounds of sequestration have made all of this worse. As a result, we are now flirting with disaster: The Liberal world order, which has been anchored by U.S. hard power for seven decades, is being seriously stressed, and with it, the foundation of our security and prosperity.

“It does not have to be this way. Nowhere is it preordained or inevitable that American power must decline. That is a choice. It is up to us. And we can choose a better future for ourselves, but only if we make the right decisions now to set us on a better course. Critics of the President may not be able to persuade him to adopt different policies, but we can lay the groundwork for his successors to lead more decisively, and to do so buttressed by greater defense capabilities. That is how I would define success for my Chairmanship—whether I contributed, in some small but meaningful way, to the effectiveness of the U.S. military, the restoration of America’s global leadership, and the defense of a Liberal world order.

“That is a lot to live up to, but I have never been more excited, or grateful, for the opportunity to serve than I am right now.”


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