WASHINGTON — US House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry outlined his plans in the coming year to focus on the Pentagon's strategy to maintain American dominance for the next 25 years, cyber, nuclear modernization and special operations.
"Our committee has spent more time over the last year on the issue of our eroding technological superiority than it has spent on any other issue," the Texas Republican told an audience at the National Press Club today.
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work has been advancing "a focused push" known as the Third Offset strategy to "make sure that in the future no state is willing to take on America," Thornberry said.
The chairman said while he applauded the Pentagon's efforts "no one should be under the illusion that a handful of technology breakthroughs, even if they come, are going to guarantee our dominant position for many years ahead." Technology changes too quickly, information moves too fast and the threats are too diverse. Therefore, "bigger change is required," he added.
On cyber as a new domain in warfare, Thornberry acknowledged that technology is not the primary problem that needs to be solved to operate effectively in such a domain.
"Organizations, people are the most fruitful things," he said. "We have to be able to fight and win in cyberspace so the committee is pushing issues related to people, organization, rules of engagement in that domain to try to make sure we close the gap between the threat and the policies we now have to deploy."
Thornberry said "it may seem a little bit odd" to have nuclear deterrence listed as a priority. "But as events over the last week have shown nuclear know-how is spreading. Our own nuclear deterrent is the foundation for all our other defense efforts."
Last week, North Korea claimed it successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. The US and its allies are working to determine within weeks whether North Korea's nuclear test did in fact involve a hydrogen bomb or a far less powerful atomic bomb.
But while North Korea works to boost the capability of its weapons and Russia continues to advance its nuclear technology, "unfortunately our warheads and our delivery systems have all been neglected and are all aging out at about the same time," Thornberry said.
"We have to put the resources, which studies show would never be more than 5 percent of the total defense budget, but we have to put the resources as well as the focused effort and the willpower into making sure that we have a nuclear deterrent that will continue to protect this country in the future," he said, "not just a nuclear deterrent that was designed for a different age."
Thornberry said he'd focus on how to best use special operations forces in the future.
"The world, including our enemies, has gotten a pretty good look at the enormous capability that our special operations forces brings," he said.
Special operations forces have deployed most recently to Syria as part of a major overhaul of the US government's strategy against the Islamic State group last November. President Barack Obama authorized the deployment of fewer than 50 special operations troops to northern Syria.
Also signaling the important role special operations will play in the Middle East in the coming years, it has been reported that Obama plans to tap Special Operations Command head Army Gen. Joseph Votel as the next leader for US Central Command.
"I have no doubt that we will continue to rely on them heavily in the future but there is a temptation, and we've seen it in other nations, to use SOF forces for everything," Thornberry said, likening the use of such forces to "taking a sharp knife and raking it across the concrete. You keep doing that and it's not so sharp anymore."
The committee, Thornberry said, "will be both supportive but also protective of our SOF capabilities because some of them are absolutely vital for the security of our nation."
One way the US Special Operations Forces excel, Thornberry noted, is its ability to work with other security forces.
"We will also be examining ways to help strengthen that capability because obviously we will be doing more of that in the future," he said.
The plan, he said, is to introduce a stand-alone bill on reform, most likely in late March. Following the release of the bill, feedback will be solicited and comments will be taken into account, according to Thornberry. Then the reform provisions will be folded into the fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill.
"One goal I have this year is to encourage more experimentation and prototyping," Thornberry added. Experimentation is at the heart of all successful military innovations, he said.
Fostering more experimentation will help ensure that technology is mature before the start of production thus reducing the odds of running over budget during a program of record to try to get the technology right, which can often end in a canceled program.
Thornberry acknowledged that today it's hard to get money for experimentation without it being attached to a program of record.
"Programs of record seems to be sacrosanct because once they get started they hardly ever get stopped. I want to look for ways to foster experimentation and prototyping both in developing technology and in their application and ensure that only mature technology goes into production," he said.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.