In his out-of-the-blocks public statement as the newly minted chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), Representative Mac Thornberry (R-TX) charted a compelling path to the future for his committee. Most of the Washington buzz about how the new, Republican-dominated Congress will approach national security matters has focused on the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), Senator John McCain (R-AZ). But in a remarkably far-ranging, thoughtful and honest speech today at the American Enterprise Institute, the HASC chairman demonstrates that he may be an equally big star on the Hill on national defense.
Thornberry began his remarks not with the usual discussion of threats and programs but by making a compelling case for the central role of Congress, generally, and the HASC and SASC, in particular, in national security decision making. Congress, he asserted, is the indispensable link between national leaders and the American people, particularly on matters of defense. This is all the more true in times of transition and growing threats. Congressional oversight, properly conducted, is absolutely indispensable to the effective and efficient operation of the Department of Defense. Noting the long and actually quite distinguished record of Congress on national security decision making, including creating and reforming defense institutions, the Chairman declared that Congress has risen repeatedly to meet the historical imperatives of past eras to provide for the common defense – even when the President doesn’t. He pledged that his committee would do so again in today’s complex and challenging environment.
Thornberry also challenged the all-too common belief that on defense issues Congress is driven largely by short-sighted and parochial interests, as when it provides money for programs the Pentagon doesn’t ask for or behaves in ways contrary to the wishes of the Executive Branch. He promised that there would be no blank checks and no rubber stamping of defense department decisions. Thornberry characterized this as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” He cited a number of examples – keeping open the Lima tank plant, protecting the A-10 fleet, refueling the USS George Washington aircraft carrier and withholding approval of a new round of base closures – where Congressional action was based on a reasoned, if disputable, assessment of the risks and tradeoffs. For example, Thornberry argued that if the Air Force repeatedly changed its mind regarding the wisdom of replacing the U-2 with the Global Hawk, Congress could be forgiven for its reluctance to see the unique capabilities of the former eliminated. He also pointed out that it was Congress that forced the Air Force to invest in the Predator drones, a much criticized action at the time that now looks like sheer genius.
Thornberry focused the bulk of his remarks on three topics. The first was sequestration. He noted the insidious impact of excessive budget reductions on training, maintenance and force structure. A fix was absolutely mandatory. But, he made clear that any solution would have to pass muster not only with the relevant committees but both houses of Congress and the President. While not specifying a solution, he left the door open to another Ryan-Murray budget fix.
The second area was acquisition reform. Thornberry asked the simple question: if Boeing can bring a new commercial airliner to market in five years and Ford a new car in four, why does it take the Pentagon a quarter century to produce a new fighter aircraft? But he specifically rejected the idea of pursuing a comprehensive solution. Instead, he proposed eating the elephant one bite at a time. Do no harm and make the process better in a step-by-step fashion. Thornberry argued for thinning out regulations and simplifying procurement processes while improving accountability and updating the way Congress conducted oversight. One of his best lines was “don’t fix organizational problems with more organization.” Thornberry also argued for a closer relationship between government and industry, suggesting that the pendulum had swung too far in the direction of creating firewalls between the two sides.
The third topic was shoring up areas of weakness in military forces and defense capabilities. One of these was the overall size of the military. Using ships as an example, he noted that we had reduced the size of the Fleet with the assertion that new ships were more capable than older versions. Yet, no matter how capable a combatant, they could only be in one place at a time. Another area was military space. A third was the laws and policies for the employment of cyber capabilities, an issue of particular salience in recent weeks. The fourth was biological threats and the difficulty that the defense department and Department of Health and Human Services had in working together. Finally, Thornberry raised the problem of preserving the industrial base and critical defense infrastructure, characterizing this as perhaps the hardest issue we will face. He declared that the nation faces the same problem in a number of other technology areas as it did with the tank facility at Lima. Preserving unique facilities such as training ranges poses a similar challenge. He warned that Congress may be required to spend money on capabilities we may not need right now in order to ensure options and mitigate risks.
All in all, an outstanding performance. It is clear that the HASC is in good hands and the Republic is safer for having Mac Thornberry at the committee’s helm.
– See more at: https://lexingtoninstitute.org/chairman-thornberry-sets-the-right-tone-for-hasc/#sthash.HfUbWxix.dpuf
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