Trumped on Defense

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

On February 25, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. described the United States military as “the most capable fighting force in the world” during a two hour and 25-minute hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

Testifying along with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on the $528 billion fiscal 2017 Defense Appropriations Bill, Dunford described details of how – with the support of Congress – “the joint force will continue to adapt, fight and win current operations, while simultaneously innovating and investing in these future challenges.”

That night, some ten hours later, Donald Trump during the two-hour and 30-minute Republican presidential debate did his familiar rant about how “we don’t win with the military…We can’t even knock out ISIS, and we will, believe me we will.”

Trump, who in the past has referred to information he gets from talk shows and unnamed generals, has never provided any details to back up his criticism of today’s U.S. military nor describe how he would change it. He also has ignored any role for Congress in providing for defense. Last Thursday was no exception.

What’s sad – and dangerous – is that Dunford’s testimony took place in a hearing room in the House Rayburn Building before perhaps 40 people, with slightly more than 600 listed as having since viewed it on You Tube. There was little, if any coverage in the mainstream media.

Meanwhile, Trump had an audience of more than 14.5 million, when you count those in the auditorium at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music Opera House and watching simultaneously on MSNBC and Telemundo television. In Addition, Trump’s debate performance was chronicled by blanket coverage in the media, though none focused on his brief mention of the military.

Last week there were, in fact, 17 congressional hearings on various aspects of the Pentagon’s fiscal 2017 budget request. Five more are scheduled today, March 1, on Capitol Hill, but thanks to whatever comes out about the presidential primaries tonight, the public will not see or hear much about what was said about next year’s U.S. defense programs, although they will represent more than 50 percent of next year’s discretionary spending by the federal government, no matter who is president.

Here are some defense budgetary problems laid out last week that eventually may require more funds and, therefore, public discussion – particularly by presidential candidates who may have to decide about them.

Start with the currently being-developed, first new Ohio-class strategic submarine now scheduled to begin construction in 2021 and go to sea in 2031. The current plan is to replace 14 of the older Ohio submarines with 12 of the newer ones. Strategic submarines are an important part of the triad of nuclear weapon delivery systems that have deterred the threat of nuclear war since the 1950s.

More than $10 billion is expected to be spent on development and advanced procurement for the new sub along with another $800 million for design of the nuclear reactor that will power it. Cost estimates for construction of the 12 new submarines starting in 2021 and continuing through 2035 run near $90 billion. With a life expectancy of 40 years, the new subs would provide nuclear deterrence through 2080.

Two hearings last week brought the strategic submarine dilemma into focus.

On February 25, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition Sean Stackley told a House Armed Services subcommittee that “other [Navy] shipbuilding production lines are going to have to be cut significantly,” if additional funds were not provided for the Ohio replacements.

Otherwise, Stackley said, “Due to the cost associated with building the Ohio replacement – and we are going to build it – other shipbuilding production lines are going to have to be cut significantly, and that will drive up a significant reduction in size of our Navy.” He put the reduced number of Navy ships at around 250 rather than the 308 currently planned.

One partial solution might be to reduce the number of new Ohio subs to 10 rather than 12, and at the same time cut the number of strategic submarines and thus nuclear warheads that are on patrols and alert for an almost immediate nuclear attack.

At a February 23, Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing, Navy Adm. James Caldwell Jr, deputy National Nuclear Security Administration administrator for naval reactors told the senators that the submarine’s new reactor would require only one refueling over its 40-year lifetime, rather than the two needed for the current Ohio subs.

One result would be saving approximately $40 billion over the fleet’s lifetime, for not having to refuel twice.

Caldwell added that with the less refueling – which takes the sub out of service for up to two years – “it also allows us to meet our requirements…with 12 submarines instead of the current 14.” Since the number of deployed Russian nuclear warheads has decreased, along with the threat of a massive first strike against the U.S., couldn’t the number of alert American warheads on subs be reduced and deterrence maintained with only 10 strategic submarines along with the 420 land-based ICBMs and bombers also available?

It is worth discussing and debating, but not if people are unaware of the facts.

How many people realize that the Department of Energy plans to spend over $5 billion next year to continue clean up facilities and waste from the Manhattan Project and other remnants of the nation’s Cold War nuclear weapons programs?

This program, begun in 1989, has so far cost $150 billion, according to testimony at that February 23 Senate Armed Services subcommittee session that was on the Atomic Energy Defense Activities authorization.

But that $150 billion was only the beginning. Another $290 billion is going to be needed over the next 60 years to clean up by 2075 millions of gallons of liquid radioactive waste, thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel and special nuclear material, disposition of transuranic and mixed/low-level waste, huge quantities of contaminated soil and water, and deactivation and decommissioning of excess facilities, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The bill for cleaning up the environmental damage caused by the past U.S. nuclear weapons should be a reminder of just how dangerous the weapons themselves would be if ever used in anger.

Dozens of other issues have been raised by these congressional hearings and more will come as Congress goes through its hearings on the fiscal 2017 defense budget. We at The Cipher Brief will be writing more about them over the next few months.

The hearings also produce moments worth recording that don’t directly deal with budgets, but in their own way need to be recorded.

At Thursday’s House subcommittee hearing, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) told Gen. Dunford: “A leading candidate for president [not mentioning Donald Trump] is telling the American people and the world that torture works…He says,’He will order our military to take out the families of Islamic terrorists.’”

McCollum then asked General Dunford, “Do you support allowing U.S. troops or the intelligence committee to use torture to exact information from suspected terrorists?”

At that point Defense Secretary Carter intervened saying, “I feel very strongly that our department needs to stand apart from the electoral fuse. So I respectfully

decline to answer any questions that arise from the political debate going on. I just don’t think that’s appropriate, and I want General Dunford especially even more so than me, not to be involved in political debates.”

But Dunford spoke up saying he would “answer the question broadly without getting into what Secretary Carter highlighted.”

The Joint Chiefs Chairman went on saying, “One of the things that makes me proud to wear this uniform is that we represent the values of the American people. And when our young men and women go to war, they go with their values…When we find exceptions, you can see how aggressively we pursue addressing those exceptions. I guess what I would say in response to your question is, we should not apologize for going to war with values of the American people. That’s what we have done historically, that’s what we expect to do in the future. And again, that’s what makes me proud to wear this uniform.”

Would Trump understand a statement like Dunford’s?

There was a hint during Trump’s appearance Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation. Trump was told that former CIA Director Michael Hayden had said if you ordered U.S. forces to kill the families of terrorists or use waterboarding, both of which Trump had said he would do, “that they [the U.S. armed forces] would refuse you.”

It was a reference to Hayden’s appearance February 26 on HBO’s Real Time where he justified such refusal saying, “You are required not to follow an unlawful order that would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict.” [Hayden is a board member of The Cipher Brief.]

Hayden has defended past CIA harsh interrogations including the waterboarding of three al-Qaeda officials. They were done under the Bush administration, whose Justice Department provided legal justification for those actions.

As CIA director, Hayden also had to watch as federal prosecutors during the Obama administration used a grand jury over two years to carry on a criminal investigation of the CIA employees who were involved in those activities.

President Obama has ruled out use of torture – to include such activities – by executive order, and Congress has legislated against them, so Trump would need Congress to pass a law to reintroduce such practices.

“I don’t know what he [Hayden] means by refuse,” Trump said, adding, “and I disagree with his statement.” Trump then went on as he usually does repeating his familiar justification: “I can only tell you there’s a lot of bad things going on. They’re chopping off heads in Syria, and they’re chopping off heads all over the Middle East…We have to get a lot tougher if we’re going to win this war. If we’re not going to be tougher, we’re never going to win this war.”

That is the next U.S. commander-in-chief many Republican primary voters apparently want to see in the White House next year.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Price for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at wpincus@thecipherbrief.com.

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