U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, questioned witnesses this morning at a SASC nomination hearing.
Nominees included Admiral William F. Moran, USN, to be Chief of Naval Operations, and Lieutenant General David H. Berger, USMC, to be Commandant of the Marine Corps.
Inhofe: Let’s start with you, Admiral Moran. Senator Reed and I have talked about this, we’re going to have six-minute rounds as opposed to the normal five-minute rounds. There are a lot of things that we want to discuss, but I’m concerned about one thing more than the rest that affect you, Admiral Moran, and that is this whole lead ship concept. You and I talked about it in my office, we’ve looked at this for a long period of time; I can remember what we did in the NDAA back in 2017, we addressed this. In fact, just reading one of the requirements, “you don’t deliver a covered vessel until the Navy determines that the vessel is assembled and complete.” That just hasn’t been happening—not your fault, you weren’t in on the deal—but resolving the problem is something that we’re going to ask you to be addressing. The last eight combatant lead ships cost a total of $8 billion more than the initial budget; five were delivered at least two years late, with dozens of deficiencies. The example I like to use because I was down there and I’ve seen it: the Ford-class was supposed to be delivered in 2015. It was finally delivered in 2017 at a cost of an additional $2.5 billion over the budget, and the weapons elevators still don’t work. There’s also other problems with it, but obviously unless you deliver the ordnances, you’re not going to be able to do anything with that. So what I’d like to have you, just briefly, does anything come to your mind right now as to a change that could take place that could change or lead system concept?
Admiral Moran: Senator, thanks for the question. Several things come to mind immediately, and one is in order to be effective at building new programs, new capabilities, is we’ve got to set the requirements early, and we’ve got to hold to those requirements and only make adjustments when absolutely necessary. We’ve got to make sure we don’t add risk to a program with layers of new capabilities, new technology that haven’t been proven or prototyped yet. I think if we get those right, it will reduce what you describe at the front end.
Inhofe: I think you brought up something significant here, because it’s not all the fault of the contractor. We change the rules, change the criteria, and it’s just that this system hasn’t been working. So I think you’re right on target on an approach, and we’ll be following your progress as it takes place.
General Berger, first of all, let me compliment you. I had a team over there in the South China Sea, and we started off in Hawaii—and I’m not the only one at this table up here that doesn’t like PowerPoints—and what you did instead of a PowerPoint was something brand new. You had maps in front of you, and you can kind of walked us through. Teach somebody else how to do that too, will you? We know what happened during the last Administration, our priorities were not on – our brigade combat teams, only about 30 percent of them could be deployed, same thing with our Army aviation brigades, I think that was 35 percent. Our F-18s that we use there in the Marines, we only had 40 percent of those that could actually be used in combat at that time. And we saw all of this taking place. The general public was not aware of this, but we were, at this table, aware of it. Now we have, they are down to 40 percent on the F-18s. I think the Secretary of Defense has talked about 80 percent as an expectation. Where are we now? We’ve done some improvements in the last two years. Where are we on that?
General Berger: Senator, the 80 percent goal set by the Secretary of Defense was for all the Services, and we’ve all been working hard to get there. I think, first I’ll say up front, we would not be where we are now in terms of readiness in tac air or anywhere else without the support of Congress and the oversight that you provided to make sure that we were spending it on readiness. And it’s happened. We’re not where we need to be yet, but we’re on the right path.
Inhofe: Give me a percentage.
Gen: Berger: On the F-18s and the F-35s together for the Marine Corps, the goal is 80 percent. Last week, F-18s hit 80 percent, F-35s hit about 74 percent. So I think both the Navy and the Marine Corps are paying close attention to it. There are things out of our control, we don’t have a crystal ball, but I think the path that we’re on should make it doable later this year to reach 80 percent.
Inhofe: OK, well that’s a better than answer than I would anticipate in this short period of time, but we also know that there’s movement within that, so it’s going to go up and down, and not maintain 80 percent, and I understand that. A lot of systems right now, the Air Force is going through replacing the KC-135 with the KC-46 after many, many years. The CH-53 Echos came around in, I think it was, 1981, and now we’re looking at dramatic improvements, although the cost is anticipated to be pretty high. Would you comment on this moving to the CH-53 Kilo model and why?
Gen. Berger: Sir, just a couple quick thoughts there to answer the question: the 53-K, first of all, the program has been restructured based on the testing that was done over the past 18 months by the Assistant Secretary of Navy Geurts and the vendor Lockheed Martin. So that has been restructured, the program, and thanks to this committee and Congress for authorizing the reprogramming of funds to make sure that the testing could continue. I’m confident that that aircraft will meet our requirements, and the requirements remain valid. It will be the heaviest lift helicopter we own in the U.S. military. It has greater range, greater speed, greater reliability than the 53 Echo, which you mentioned is approaching 30 years right now. I’m confident that the oversight means are in place and that that both Secretary Geurts and the Marine Corps leaders are watching it closely. That’s an aircraft that can do what no other aircraft can. We need it.
Inhofe: We know, we hear the cost on this. Initially, we understand that the costs are going to be higher. I am concerned when you just look at it and you say $100 million for a helicopter, when right now we’re at about $80 million for a strike vehicle, so we want to follow that real closely, which we will be doing. Thank you.