Q&A with top Republican on House Armed Services Committee

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, speaks to Congress reporter Joe Gould at the Defense News Conference.

WASHINGTON — The House and Senate are expected to reconcile their respective versions of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, but not before the outcome of the Nov. 3 elections, according to House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.

Thornberry offered his thoughts on the bill, America’s efforts to strengthen its alliances and military presence in the Pacific, and one of the trickiest puzzles facing defense acquisition.

Thornberry was chairman of the committee from 2015 to 2019 and is retiring at the end of his term this year. He spoke with Joe Gould at the Defense News Conference on Sept. 10. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Recent days have brought multiple reports that the president disparaged wounded and fallen troops. We saw him call for a highly respected Fox News reporter [Jennifer Griffin] to be fired for corroborating those reports ― an attack on the first amendment, some might say. He accused military leaders in his own administration of waging wars to boost the profits of defense firms. Is it right for a commander-in-chief to say and do these kinds of things?

No. And as a matter of fact, I’ve been a little dismayed at what’s happened the past few days. I know the president says things for effect, a lot, but to have a commander in chief question the motivations of military leaders, and basically say they’re in it for themselves, is wrong and it gives our adversaries an opening. Even if you think it, you shouldn’t say it, but it’s also wrong on the substance. I’ve been doing this for 26 years, I’ve been around a lot of top military leaders as well as professionals in the press corps, and what I know ― and you can disagree with judgments that military leaders have ― but it’s a pretty stringent process of winnowing out [military leaders] as they go up their chain to get to that point, besides which these are folks who have served our country for more than 20 years before they ever get there. So you can say well their judgment is wrong or they think too much alike. There are some legitimate issues to discuss, but their motivation, their patriotism, is to me without question. These are remarkable individuals.

Another thing I’ve learned over the last 26 years is the people who have to send folks in to war are the most reluctant to go to war because they’ve seen it themselves they’ve experienced it themselves. They’re willing to do whatever the country asks them to do, but they do not want to do that.

Another thing I want to say is, as I’ve gotten to work with a number of top professionals in journalism and Jennifer Griffin is as professional and her integrity is as impeccable as anybody I’ve ever worked with. So if she says, ‘Somebody told me this,’ you can count on it. Somebody told her that; she is reporting what she has discovered. Again, that doesn’t go to the underlying ― is what if that person told her the truth ― but what she does, the way she does it, what she says, is impeccable. And I worry that we are to a point in this country where if somebody says something we don’t like, or disagrees with us, then automatically they’re a bad person, they’re they’re evil, and you see that actually in both parties, and we got to come back from that.

The report in The Atlantic and subsequent reporting backing it up has really thrust the issue of basic respect for service members into the race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. What’s your sense of the president’s democratic rival, Joe Biden, who has had more experience, but maybe that experience also comes with a track record and more baggage. Would the country benefit from the approach of somebody who is going to put more stock in in alliances as Biden says that he will?

I think you have to give President Trump credit because he has definitely supported rebuilding the military, improving our readiness after the budget cuts of the Obama years. We’ve now we’ve made up about half of those cuts, but he has strongly supported that. I worry about his approach to alliances, whether it’s NATO or the negotiations with South Korea. So I do worry about that.

For Vice President Biden he says the right things, but if you look back in the Obama years, we had a lot of trouble with alliances then too. You had the pullout from Iraq that led to the rise of ISIS. So I think there’s reasons to be concerned maybe on both sides. But this is where the broad center in both parties who have supported a similar approach since the end of World War II, have to stand up and encourage both candidates to be in that broad mainstream, where the U.S. is engaged in the world, we’re forward deployed we have alliances, you know that broad approach that has been so successful for us. That’s what we need from both sides.

There was a markedly bipartisan tone in the House’s approval of the NDAA this year versus last year. What was different for Republicans who rejected the early version of the House bill last year?

I think everybody learned from last year. Last year was the first time in a while we’ve had a Democratic House, Republican Senate, Republican president, and everybody learned what was possible and what was not possible during conference. And I give HASC Chairman Adam Smith a lot of credit, this year for not only getting the bill out of committee unanimously and having a strong vote in the House, but doing it all during the COVID-19 pandemic. I told him he has had to be chairman under more difficult circumstances than any chairman before, and I think he’s done a very good job. I think we will get a conference report with the Senate. It’s probably going to be after the election.

The main hurdle to the conference report might be the provisions to rename U.S. military bases that honor Confederate commanders. How should negotiations over the bills deal with the president’s threat to issue a veto over base renaming, which passed both chambers?

I offered a substitute in committee that I still think makes sense, and rather than say you must change the names of all these bases, it says you must talk with local folks, active-duty and retired [troops], community leaders, civil rights groups about the names of these bases, and have that sort of understanding before you go to the next step.

I don’t know how that will come out in conference, but I do think we are in a time where neither party is rewarded for compromise and coming together and getting things done. Both sides have incentives to kind of stake out your positions and go to battle, and so it’s not just one provision that prevents us from getting a conference report done. It’s the times we are living in. On the other hand, I think that we should be able to get a conference report pretty quickly after the election.

Do you expect the president to make good on his veto threat against a popular bill because of a provision that survived both chambers?

He might. The provisions did not come out of both chambers the same way. So there are further negotiations that have to occur. And part of that negotiation is talking with the White House about the shape of that provision. So is there a way to get everybody to good? Of course there is. Is it likely to happen before the election? No, it’s not.

Another provision that was not the same in both bills was the Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative. You proposed a version. What’s the state of play and what’s driving this provision?

This is a very important provision. And the most important part is that you do see a version of it in both the House and Senate NDAA. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he supports a version of it now. He was reluctant for a while. So we’ll work out the details. The key thing is that if the Indo-Pacific is our priority theater, we need to put our money where our mouth is. And to pat the House on the back for a second: two or three years ago, we started this process by asking the Department of Defense to come up with a plan for an Indo-Pacific initiative, like has been so successful with the European Defense Initiative, but they wouldn’t do it. I think that led everybody this year to say: “OK, if you’re not going to put it in your budget, then we’re going to tell you how.” That’s what has led to these different versions, different amounts and so forth.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carriers Ronald Reagan and Nimitz sail together in the South China Sea. (MC3 Jason Tarleton/U.S. Navy)
The U.S. Navy aircraft carriers Ronald Reagan and Nimitz sail together in the South China Sea. (MC3 Jason Tarleton/U.S. Navy)

I could care less about any particular project than I care about getting this initiative going, using it to express our commitment to the Pacific and to working with our allies in the Pacific. That’s the focus of this fund. And I think that just as it has proven very successful in Europe, it will be the same in the Pacific.

Palau has asked the Pentagon to build ports, bases and airfields there as part of U.S. expansion plans, and the defense secretary recently visited the Pacific. How well has the administration done in securing agreements needed for new military installations in new places or for the redistribution of forces?

They’re making a good effort, and part of what motivates them, and all of us, is you do these war games and you realize we need to spread out not only our forces but our logistic chains. We can’t have too many eggs in one basket because that makes it too inviting a target for Chinese missiles and so forth. I do think everybody’s coming to grips with what this new, more aggressive China means for our posture in the Pacific, but alliances are not just the work of the Department of Defense, which is working and trying, but you need the State Department and the White House, and Congress even has a role in helping build these alliances and partnerships among nations.

It’s promising what Palau is offering. We have a lot of very good partners in the Pacific, we don’t want to take them for granted, and we definitely want to expand to others.

What stock is there in the idea of formalizing “the Quad” — a partnership between the U.S., Australia, India and Japan — or a NATO-style alliance in the Asia-Pacific region?

I don’t know if you will duplicate NATO in the Pacific, but the Indo-Pacific initiative is a helpful step to facilitate working with allies and partners. It may not be the same sort of formal structure in NATO, but it’s one that I think will make sense there. I do not think — I’ll just pick a country at random — we want to put Vietnam on the spot and say either you’re part of our alliance or you’re not. Because they’ve got to live there in the neighborhood. If it happens organically in some way: We have strong alliances with Japan, with South Korea, and obviously Australia is one of our closest partners, but to try to force 20 countries together in this situation when they’ve got to live around China probably is not a productive thing to do.

The Trump administration is trying to withdrawal some forces in Germany. Would this save money or make the U.S. military more effective? What questions do you have?

All of us on the Armed Services Committee have a lot of further questions. Part of it was the way it was announced sounded more like a personal kind of retribution than a thought-out strategic plan where there was consultation, not only with Germany but with all the NATO countries. I think that’s what we expect and need as a country to have to have happen.

Does it make sense to reposition troops in Germany farther east to the Balkans, maybe Poland? (We’ve been doing more with the Baltics as well.) Yeah, you can make that case. But it needs to be made in consultation.

A lot of good things have happened [under the Trump administration] to improve our readiness, but we need to be a little more careful about how we deal with allies and partners. China doesn’t have allies, Russia doesn’t have allies; the United States has allies and partners. It’s a key advantage. We need to nurture that advantage, not run them off.

What advice would you give your successor as the chairman or ranking member of the committee, either under the status quo or a change in president?

Look for ways to hold the Armed Services Committee together and to keep the NDAA on its 59-, hopefully 60-year run. One thing is if you know there’s going to be a bill every year, you don’t have to get the whole loaf in this year’s bill. You will have another chance and another chance. And that helps provide first an opportunity to legislate, but it also encourages people to maybe settle for half a loaf this year and come back and make your case for the other half next year. It’s important for national defense, it’s stability, support for our troops, but it’s also important for the institutions of government to see that somewhere in this crazy, Twitter-filled, press conference-filled world, you can have things that may not make the headlines but still work. And it works to the benefit of the country.

It’s a challenge because you would like to just ask the world to pause so we can develop some new capabilities, but the world doesn’t pause, so we’ve got to have capability today to deal with what might happen today. At the same time, we are developing new capabilities to meet the challenges that are coming at us, especially from peer competitors like Russia and China. So we’ve got to do both.

It’s true we’ve placed some big bets that have not paid off, and I think a lot of people have learned those lessons. You want to develop and mature technology before you commit to it. I think one of the big areas where attention is needed is what’s called the “valley of death” because we put in place a lot of specific programs, but to get it into a program of record, to transplant it from the pot into the wild, doesn’t work very well. To mature technologies so that you have not so much a risky bet but something you know works, prototypes, etc., we’ve got to have a better way to get those from prototype into production, and in the hands of the war fighter. If we could smooth that out, then I think people would feel better about walking away from legacy programs, so that you’re not just making a bet.