U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, questioned Dr. Mark Esper, nominated to be Secretary of Defense. this morning at a SASC nomination hearing.
Inhofe: Thank you, Dr. Esper. Senator Kaine made a couple of comments about your accompanying him to installations in this area. I was reminded that you accompanied me in some of these areas also. It went beyond just the Army. We were down at Fort Sill together. We were talking about the housing problems, and the fact that it initiated, the first time we heard about housing problems, were actually at Tinker Air Force Base. You were aware of that. But on that meeting that we had, the trip that we had to together to Fort Sill, the thing that impressed me, and I think it fits in this hearing today, is how well you did in communicating with troops in the field. I mean, you were one of them, and at that time, I just thought, you are really the guy for this job.
When you were with us in June, you were actually the Acting Secretary of Defense at that time, you said that the “U.S. National Defense Strategy remains our guiding document.” This is really significant. This hasn’t happened before. We had a hearing about this—this was put together by Democrats, Republicans, people who were top military people in this country, and no one at any time since we adopted this thing well over a year ago has complained it wasn’t done properly.
At that time you talked about why it was important. And also prior to that in March, when you were the Army Secretary, in response to one of my questions, you said, “Senator, you made a very important point. You said what do you need? What we need is this budget. The Russians are modernizing…We must build the next generation of combat systems now, before Russia and China outpace us with their modernization programs.” We know that is what is actually happening today. By the way, Secretary Mattis—and I appreciated the comment that Senator Kaine made about him and those are my sentiments also—but he agreed with that, that this is what we needed to be doing and how important it was.
In the opening statement, I talked about the fact that the document that appeared, the article that appeared in The Economist showed that in the same period of time that we were cutting our military spending by 25 percent, China was increasing theirs by 83 percent.
The people out there don’t know this, they don’t realize, that we have competition that’s out there that we’ve not had before. When I see this, I look and I think that we’ve done a better job, but we need to a better job than we’ve done before. General Milley when he became chief of staff, only 5 percent of Army Brigades were at the highest level of readiness. Now, it’s 50 percent. That’s a huge increase. So we’re in the right area, and we’re moving the right direction.
In terms of the budget, this is your opportunity to weigh in on this and what we’re going to have to do in order to do the job that needs to be done at this time, considering that we have peer competitors we’ve never had before. So I’d like to have you to use whatever time you need to use and talk about the significance of the budget deal that we’re going to have to have.
Esper: Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman. First of all, I fully share all your remarks, and the threat posed to us in the long run by China cannot be overstated. And so for those reasons, I fully support the President’s budget, the need for a two-year budget deal, and of course the need to have the authorizations and appropriations bills passed on time. Again, I cannot overstate how important it was for DOD last year to receive a budget on time. It really allowed us to accelerate the readiness gains we made, to advance our modernization efforts, and do all those things that the National Defense Strategy tells us to do.
Inhofe: That’s good. Also, we had asked Gen. Milley when he was in to kind of classify the areas that we have, to highlight the areas we need to catch up, and he mentioned nuclear triad modernization, space, artificial intelligence and hypersonics. Now you touched on this in your opening statement. Is there anything you want—what would be your priorities in this list or should this be a longer list than it is?
Esper: Well this may sound unconventional, but it goes to Sen. Reed’s first point, is, if confirmed, I need to staff up the top tier of the Pentagon soonest. When we talk about the bigger picture issues that you mentioned, clearly modernization of the triad is top priority. I think we need to fully develop the domain of space as a war-fighting domain. We need to improve our capabilities and policies with regard to cyber space. And then of course there are a wide range of conventional capabilities we need to improve, and many of those hinge on core technologies we can talk about the rest of the hearing.
Inhofe: Thank you, Dr. Esper.