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Interview: Rep. Rob Wittman, the latest in a line of influential chairmen

February 15, 2017 (Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Virginia Republican Rob Wittman took over in January as the new chairman of the House Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, assuming the reins from Randy Forbes. The subcommittee arguably is the most influential public body driving discussion and perceptions of the U.S. Navy, and many will be looking to Wittman to set the legislative pace on Capitol Hill about the Navy and about U.S. Air Force bomber and tanker programs. Speaking with Defense News about the upcoming deliberative session, Wittman, who most recently chaired the Readiness Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, said his top priority was setting a proper course for the Navy’s plan to expand to 355 ships and overseeing the Air Force’s B-21 bomber program.

How will you approach your chairmanship?

I look at it as what are we going to do to make sure we get our Navy to where it needs to be? It’s not just the shipbuilding side. I want to make sure we’re focusing on the other elements that don’t necessarily always make the headlines, but especially what we are going to do as we bring the Navy up to 350 ships to make sure that sailors and Marines are part of that formula too. The tail on this effort, to me, is a big deal.

I think I will be as in-depth and as discerning as Congressman Forbes was. Look back and I’ve served with [former Seapower chairman] Gene Taylor. I’ve been on the Seapower Subcommittee since I’ve been here. I’ve traveled around with Gene, crawled around the hulls of Littoral Combat Ships 1 and 2 with Gene as we tried to figure out that platform, as well as with [former chairman] Roscoe Bartlett as we talked about the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and the trials and tribulations that EFV went through. I’ve been able to learn and take lessons from all of them. I think all had strengths in how they dealt with the Navy, how they looked at programs.

I think my look at how the subcommittee works, the things that we do, the things that we address, will take what I’ve learned from those three gentlemen in my time here and combine the best of what they put forward. I would like to make sure that my leadership style is something that includes members of the committee and takes the time to study the Navy and the Marine Corps. Not just the general aspects of what they do but the in-depth aspects.

I will be traveling to every shipyard in the country in the next two months, I’m going to be on the ground talking to folks. The same way with our projection forces. I’ll be out there talking to the companies that are involved in our strategic assets, whether it’s building lift capacity with KC-46As, with the new B-21 bomber platform. What we are doing to keep the other platforms, because there’s a big question the Air Force hasn’t answered about as you build these new aircraft, what’s going to happen to the older aircraft? Many of them, like the B-52s, are very old platforms. A lot of questions there.

I want to make sure I know the details so I can ask the right questions, be demanding in the right ways so the Air Force and the Navy make sure that we do our job. And make sure that we have the right operation of those elements of our Armed Forces. And make sure that we’re modernized for the future. We talk about readiness of the operation and maintenance and training. I think what’s forgotten in the realm of how the Congress looks at it is the role modernization plays as you look at the demands around the world, at our adversaries and what they’re doing to modernize their systems -- in many instances catching up and in some instances surpassing our capability. We’d better be asking the tough questions, not only about how do we sustain what we have but how do we modernize to keep up with our adversaries.

Are viewpoints changing in the way the Hill views defense spending? What’s changed that suggests a larger defense budget could be attained?

I think folks realize the challenges we have. We’ve all tried to communicate with folks, get them out to the fleets, get them out to our CONUS [continental United States] facilities where they can see soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and what they do as well as OCONUS [outside CONUS]. I’ve done a lot with the Armed Services community in extending that to groups like the Republican Study Committee. I tell folks, you can be a budget hawk and a defense hawk, do a lot of work across the aisle with folks like Joe Courtney and others to make sure that as we engage, that he engages with his side and we figure the right folks to talk to make sure they see things from the standpoint of a broader perspective about what’s best for the nation, not what is ideological or a party-driven perspective.

The good thing on Armed Services is we’ve been able to sidestep that. Only in rare instances do you ever see any sort of partisanship there. Our challenge is to make sure we extend that beyond the Armed Services Committee. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my time here, to make sure we engage others. I believe when you do those things you can kind of break through all the noise that happens with the political back and forth.

Have you met with Mick Mulvaney, the presumptive new director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget?

I talked to Mick at length and I think he understands where we need to be. Obviously, he’s a budget hawk. He has expressed a willingness to say we understand we have to do those things. I think he would be very vocal about how you balance that in the context of addressing the deficit today, which I would be in agreement with. But you have to be able to set priorities and that requires that you make tough decisions. I think Mick will at least introduce that to the President as he indicated in the hearings, and I’ve had personal conversations with him.

There will have to be some tough decisions  how can you do tax cuts, defense increase, the infrastructure plan.

I agree.

And then Democrats in the Senate oppose entitlement cuts.  

And you have to address the autopilot spending programs in places where the President has said he won’t go. I do think the House needs to at least introduce those, because with the major portion of the budget, if you take two-thirds of that off the table, you cannot in any way, shape or form lay out an achievable path to be able to address all these issues. You can’t do the infrastructure side. Even if you have economic growth through tax policy, that doesn’t show up at best for at least 18 to 24 months into a budget cycle. So, you don’t capture those increases in revenue early on.

So then the question is how do you bridge that gap? You’re still going to potentially grow the deficit unless you address the other spending portions. Even if you do reform in other areas on the discretionary side, there’s only so much you’re going to pick up there and it doesn’t get anywhere near the deficits that we have today. I think at the least there’s going to have to be a discussion about some of the things you can do to the autopilot spending programs.

I know you’re trying to game out your strategy for the coming session. What are the first three hearings you’d like to have, besides budget hearings?

We’ve put a number of things on the table. First of all, it’s obviously a posture hearing with the Navy to determine what goes on there. What I want to do, too, is be able to lay out the 355-ship Navy course. We’ve asked the Congressional Budget Office to lay out how we would get there in a 30-year scenario, in 25, 20, 15 years. I want to be able to lay out not just the infrastructure, but what does the naval architecture look like? Ship classes, those kinds of things, how we put that all together, including unmanned systems.

The same way with the Air Force. I want to get an up-to-date snapshot for our subcommittee to say where are we with the current systems, with our current bomber fleet as far as modernizing them to keep them in operation until B-21 comes in. What’s happening with B-21 as far as timeframes? What’s happening with KC-46A which is now delayed in its delivery? What’s happening with Boeing? I think everybody on the committee ought to be aware of that.

I had conversations with Congressman Joe Courtney, [D-Conn], who will be the ranking member. It’s his request that we do these informational hearings. He wants to do a Shipbuilding 101 so that members of the committee know what shipbuilding is about. We can do that pretty quickly, I believe, and then begin to dive into issues with the Navy on things like maintenance.

How about strategy? Congressman Forbes had a pretty good focus on the Pacific, on China, the rise of the Chinese threat. And then there are the Russians.

Those are hearings we’ll be having. My travels have been to the Asia Pacific. This year after we finish the shipyard tours, we’ll be going to the Mediterranean, to the Persian Gulf, to those areas where our naval and strategic assets are located to talk to leaders about the threat scenarios. We talk to leaders in countries who we believe need to be part of that effort with us, including places like Turkey and India. We’ve had great conversations with leaders in places like Japan and South Korea who have all been nice, but questioning the true effort in the rebalance to the Pacific. Those are things that have to question. What are the threat scenarios which continue to change, especially with continued behavior by North Korea?

The Pacific rebalance — the shift to 60/40 Pacific is not yet complete. Do you support completion of that or would you like to pause the transfer of ships, aircraft and people?

I still think you have to rebalance to the Pacific. I think you have to prove to our partners there that we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do. I think you do have to look, though, as we travel to other places, to the Baltics, to look at aggression in the Baltic areas. I do think you have to have discussions with our partners in NATO about naval presence in the area. Another question comes up with the things that are happening in the Middle East. There is presence in the Mediterranean which we haven’t had a whole lot of. But then the Persian Gulf.

The question is how do you fulfill the rebalance to the Pacific and how to you take new assets coming in to the Navy and prioritize the deployment of those assets? If you fill out the full combatant commander demand, you get to 653 ships and 24 aircraft carriers. We know that that’s not going to be met. But the Navy’s force structure assessment is taking that COCOM demand signal and saying we reasonably need 355 ships and 12 carriers. Are we doing the proper things with deployment of assets to the Mediterranean, which we backed away from, and do we have enough assets in the North Atlantic, especially submarines. What we’re seeing the Russians doing, especially in those areas where submarines are coming out — we see some things they’re doing and I can’t talk about the specifics -- but with what they’re doing with our listening stations, what they’re doing with undersea cables ought to cause all of us concern. That’s a presence issue.

Should there be more open discussion about that? Should you talk about it to support the very expensive buildup to 355 ships?

I think we have to talk very specifically about what those threats are and in general what we can and cannot do with the undersea Russian assets that come and go in that region of the world. What a lot of people don’t understand is 90 percent of our communication still happens the old-fashioned way, via cable not by satellite. With the activity the Russians are doing -- I don’t think you have to give away the specifics -- but I think you do have to say there’s increased Russian activity there that is a potential threat to those assets. The only way we can counter that or keep up with that is to have our own presence there.

Allies of the U.S. in the Middle East always question the depth of the American commitment there. Do you support the current commitment or do you think it’s been overdone and maybe should be pulled back?

I am 100 percent in favor of that presence there. I think it’s critical in that area of the world to have some ability to influence events there. I think if you take that presence away, you’d see much more aggressive behavior by Iran. I think you’d see much more aggressive behavior by the Houthis in Yemen. We’ve already seen that against the destroyers Mason and the Nitze and against Saudi Arabian ships. I think you’d see a free-for-all down there if you didn’t have U.S. presence. That doesn’t even include piracy that would happen there a little bit further down off the African coast. So I think U.S. presence in that area of the world is absolutely critical.

I would argue the presence needs to extend not just to the Persian Gulf but also to the Mediterranean Sea. Of course, there wasn’t a need or demand signal from that previously, but with what’s happening currently, whether it’s the issues in Turkey with Erdogan, or with them being more sympathetic to more extremist elements in that region. You see what’s happening in Syria. You see what’s happening in Russia and them wanting to have a significant footprint in that area. No matter what happens there, our presence is at least a counter. The Persian Gulf, Mediterranean, that whole area there is a key. Presence there without a gap I do believe is a top priority for our Navy.

It seems like the administration at this point is out of step with mainstream Republican thinking about Russia. What’s your take on that?

If you go back to a foundational look at what Russians interests are and at what the United States’ interests are, they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. What are the common interests of the two countries? Not a whole lot. Secondly there is the track record of Vladimir Putin and how he deals with folks. The trustworthiness, the things they’ve done, whether it’s through strategic arms treaties, things they said they’re not doing that they do, the world class propaganda effort they put out to try to convince people the world is other than what it is. I think all those things make it extraordinarily challenging to get to a place where you have significant agreements that serve both U.S. interests and Russian interests. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try and that you shouldn’t have those conversations, but I do believe that you have to come into that with a healthy amount of skepticism to understand that maybe you can do those things but boy, you’d better make sure they’re able to prove themselves out and that there’s a clear demonstration that if you do those things, there’s something that’s going to be there in the U.S. interest.

Are we seeing enough skepticism for this administration?

I know that they’re going to explore it. Now, how they develop their own sense of what happens with Russia, we’ll see play out. I think that the people around this administration have had enough experience with the Russians to be able to give the president the proper perspective on how mutual interests can be met and the historical record of agreements, trustworthiness and those kinds of things. I have no problem with the administration exploring this. They probably should. But I hope for them that the learning curve is a quick learning curve. Go in and say here’s where we are. Let’s do some things very early on that are simple ways to measure the resiliency of what Russia would commit to do and make some quick determinations. 

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