Rep. Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican, returns in 2015 as chairman of this influential subcommittee, one of a handful of congressional entities that directly shape and alter the makeup and direction of the US Navy. As might be expected from a Virginia representative, Forbes is keenly interested in shipbuilding, but he's also delved deeply into numerousissues, from unmanned aircraft and amphibious lift to Chinese naval expansion and the US Navy's shift to the Pacific. Forbes has campaigned strenuously for better funding for the sea services and is a strong opponent of sequestration spending restrictions.
On the eve of the 114Congress, he shared his views on what he sees in the year ahead.
Q. What do see as seapower priorities in the new Congress?
A. The No. 1 priority is not just in a seapower lane, but I don't think we can do any of the rest of the priorities unless we get sequestration pulled off. So the No. 1 focus we're all going to have going into the new year is getting sequestration done away with as it pertains to national defense.
Q. Do you feel comfortable about accomplishing that?
A. I do. I just feel like we're moving in the right direction, that there's a new feel up here with so many people on the fence. So I'm optimistic that we'll get that done.
One of the things is how we have the debate — I have made this same presentation to the leadership in the House and to many chairmen of the committees. What we have historically done for the last five, six years on Capitol Hill is really backwards when it comes to defense. We have asked the question how much money do we want to spend on defense? Then once you've locked in that figure, what kind of strategy can you utilize from that budget and how can you implement that strategy? We have to change the debate to where we start talking about what our goals are for national defense.
If they answer those questions and if we phrase it that way, then I believe you have a much better chance of doing the math and backing up how many ships we need and what that's going to cost. If we are in a debate between spending money on a Tomahawk missile or a new playground or park or highway, defense is going to lose. If the debate is where it should be — which is, do you want our men and women fighting to defend this country with platforms or weapon systems equal to or inferior to their opponents, or where they may not have air dominance in a fight — then we win that debate. And that's the way we need to shift this debate among policy-makers.
Q. Let's go to some specific programs and issues. The Navy's request to take 11 cruisers out of service for a phased modernization program was soundly rebuffed last year by Congress. It's admittedly a complicated issue, but how do you think they should proceed?
A. I am hopeful that the Navy is going to come back to us with a plan of how they keep those cruisers and how we actually do the modernization.
Q. So you didn't buy the Navy's argument that it needs to take these ships out of service to preserve service life, then modernize them at a later date and return them to service?
A. If you buy that argument, I have some swampland I want to sell you. It's kind of hard when you get the Navy coming over here and saying we want to destroy seven cruisers. And us saying no. Then all of a sudden they come back saying instead of euthanizing them, can we talk about modernizing them. When they first came over they didn't even have a plan. This wasn't something they walked over this year with the budget getting rid of these 11 cruisers. They didn't have a plan. So no, I'm not sold that the real motivation was modernization. If it is, we'll try to work with them and make sure we get these cruisers modernized.
Q. You have proposed an alternative way to fund the Ohio-class replacement submarine outside the basic Navy shipbuilding budget, essentially opening a dedicated bank account. But as an authorizer, you can't put money in that account. Is this a viable topic for the new Congress?
A. It's not just a viable effort, it's a necessary effort. There is no way we can afford to have the Ohio-class replacement as far as the shipbuilding budget of the Navy [is concerned] or we're going to drop dramatically down from where we are. You're exactly right, I cannot actually fund it; I can only help set up the account. But this is not a one-time, get-it-all-done [situation]. This is something we've started hopefully with a long enough lead-time that we'll have the opportunity to get that done as the time approaches.
Q. You have been a strong proponent of urging the Navy to field an unmanned strike aircraft. But the Navy's unmanned carrier jet effort has stalled, and the Pentagon has now pushed it out for more studies — something which could be seen as setting the stage to kill the program. Is the unmanned carrier jet dead for now?
A. I hope it's not. I wish I could tell you a definitive answer. The best thing we were able to do was give them a second look and allow the Department of Defense to make absolutely sure they weren't heading in a wrong direction for the next 20 or 30 years with the development they were using. As you know, individuals in the Navy wanted to utilize the [Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike] aircraft just as a very different kind of ISR vehicle. It's my feeling that we can do most of what they wanted to do already. I was very concerned that the platform they would be developing wouldn't even be able to make it through some of the defenses we see today, much less what we would see 10 or 20 years from now.
So I am hoping the Navy will come back having relooked at that. But I certainly don't want to see this program killed. I think it's an important program. I just think it needs to head in the right direction.
Q. The Pentagon is in the midst of searching for new offset strategies — ideas to counteract enemy capabilities. Will you focus on this?
A. We already have, with a hearing in early December, and we're going to continue to explore that. What we're trying to do is make sure people understand what we are even talking about with the terminology of the offset strategy. This isn't a brand new strategy that's going take the place of the vacuum kind of strategic planning this administration has been doing.
But there are two keys: unless we get rid of sequestration and have the funding, then all the planning, all the research, doesn't really do us that much good. Second, they're not to be implemented six weeks from now, but doing the research, developing the offset strategies is going to be important so we can have that done when we do get the dollars to implement them.
Q. Are you satisfied with the Navy's progress at moving 60 percent of its forces to the Pacific region?
A. I think what the Navy is beginning to realize is they may not necessarily be able to just pull away from the Atlantic. We're seeing continued problems in the Middle East and I don't see that going away tomorrow. And of course you see the Russian movement in Europe now, and the Russian increase in capability and capacity.
I think the answer is it may not be something as simple as saying OK, let's put 60 percent of our assets over here. The question I'll be asking is do we have enough capacity, capability, in the Asia-Pacific area? And do we have enough capacity and capability when it comes to dealing with the Middle East and Europe? That's something I think this administration has really put its head in the hole and hasn't answered.
Q. Is the answer a Reagan-era strategy of just outbuilding everybody?
A. Absolutely not, just the opposite. What I would suggest is, I would not be sending a signal around the world that we're retrenching, that we're going to pull a carrier out of my fleet, beach 11 cruisers, get rid of six destroyers, not give the Marines the amphibious ship they need, take away the Tomahawk missile production line. I would be saying we're going to have the military we need. But we're going to begin with the strategic review and analysis to make sure we're developing that. But it's a huge difference when all of the major nations in the world are building their Navy up and we are reducing ours. I think that sends an enormous message.
Q. How worried are you about Russia's increased military aggressiveness?
A. You don't have to have a military conflict with them. You don't have to try to muscle them around. But when you're sending a message that "it's OK to do everything you want to do, and by the way, we're just reducing our military capabilities," I think we're encouraging bad actions. And we're certainly not doing anything to discourage them.