WASHINGTON — With new nuclear and missile defense policy to oversee, as well as the sweeping overhaul of the military’s space enterprise, the lawmakers of Congress’ Strategic Forces subcommittees find themselves responsible for the oversight of several huge efforts this year.
Defense News caught up with Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, the top Republican on the House Armed Service’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee, to chat about how Republicans might tackle each of those challenges — and where they could find common ground with Democrats.
What would you like to see the committee take up this year?
I’m very supportive of the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review and our need to respond to the increasing threats from Russia’s modernization and China’s expansion of its nuclear weapons capabilities.
Coming from having chaired the air and land [subcommittee], an item that we have dual jurisdiction over is the dual-capable version of the F-35, and that will be a priority for me as we look to the modernization of the B-61. NATO has very hard deadlines in the 2020s that we need to make certain we meet. And the groundwork for the dual-capable F-35 is now.
On missile defense, I’m the author of the East Coast missile defense site that was a response to the expected abandonment by the Obama administration of their phase 4 of their phased adaptive approach. They killed the ground-based missile system that [President George W.] Bush was going to place in Europe, claiming with their phased adaptive approach that phase 4 would include a component to protect the continental United States. I felt, at the time, it was a bait-and-switch and that phase 4 would never come into fruition. It did not. So, we moved forward with the establishment of an East Coast site option.
The Missile Defense Review indicates that they’ve proceeded in their assessment, but they’re not proceeding with the site itself. I want to do some critical review, with the Missile Defense Agency, on their assessment both of the threat and the potential for a second site.
I think it’s very concerning that we have virtually all our eggs in one basket. I think we also need to have the options of look-shoot-look. Basic geometry would have us needing us to have multiple sites.
Before we dig into those topics, I want to get your opinion about Space Force. I know that you were pretty opposed to the Space Corps proposal when it was first offered by Reps. Mike Rogers and Jim Cooper, but it seems like you are a little bit more supportive these days.
When it was first proposed, they wouldn’t tell us what was going to be in it, how much it was going to cost or what it was going to do. We were told it was going to cost nothing. I knew that was not the case. Today we do have a fairly sizable price tag that the proposal for Space Force comes with. But I think we’re still in the processes of trying to define what a Space Force would be and what it would do.
I’m not opposed to undertaking a separate space function under the Air Force; I just want to make certain we do it right. What we proposed before was haphazard, and what we have an opportunity to do now is very thoughtful undertaking to try to advance our operations and our acquisitions of space assets.
How would you characterize your level off support for the proposal as it stands now?
I’m supportive for working on the process, to figure out how do we do this right. Which was the same position I had before. That’s going to require work.
What did you think of the numbers that the Office of the Secretary of Defense has floated so far, the $2 billion over five years?
It still sounds incredibly under counting what the expenses will be for doing this.
What sort of oversight can the House Armed Services Committee do, then, to make sure that that’s an accurate accounting of what it’s going to take?
As you said, their current assessment is over a five-year period, so we don’t have to do it all at once. We have an opportunity to take some time, put together a construct that is operationally beneficial, and then work with the Air Force and DoD on its implementation to ensure that it’s done both right and cost-efficiently.
It sounds like you are supportive of the idea of putting Space Force under the Air Force.
I think it’s the only way that it should be done. Absolutely. The interrelationship between the Air Force and our space access should not be severed.
What are your thoughts on the legislative proposal for Space Force, specifically?
Obviously there’s a number of things in it that don’t work.
Can you extrapolate a bit on that?
I really don’t want to at this time. I think obviously they’ll become evident. But there are a number of waivers and authorities that I think are excessive and that Congress probably wants to have a greater role in.
This is a pretty complex piece of legislation. … There’s no portion of this that’s just going to be copied and pasted.
There’s been a lot of talk about nuclear weapons in the House the last couple months, and you’ve been a strong proponent of that enterprise.
A nuclear deterrent has kept us safe for decades. As our adversaries invest in their capabilities, modernization and expand their forces, our deterrent effect diminishes if we don’t similarly invest.
How do you see this debate playing out within the HASC, and then more broadly?
We just had a hearing on nuclear policy, and it seemed as if the chairmen and Democratic caucus members on the committee might not share his [HASC Chairman Adam Smith’s] views. I think we’re probably going to find that the policies coming out of the committee are more consistent with the policies we’ve already held.
Looking at the scope of the work that the Defense Department wants to accomplish when it comes to nuclear modernization over the next decade — there is quite a lot there. There’s the delivery systems, there is NC3 modernization, there is looking at warheads. And that’s just on the modernization side, not even looking at different treaties and other policy options. What are your priorities that you think absolutely must get done, and what is your role in helping facilitate that?
Yeah, it’s got to be all of them. The problem that we have right now is that this has been deferred repeatedly. I think the last administration dreamed of a world without nuclear weapons and thought that maybe this bill was going to go away. It’s not going away. There are more nuclear weapons today than there were when the Obama administration came in. And there are certainly more states that pose a threat.
Does the country need low-yield weapons?
In deterrence, you want your adversary to believe that if they take action with a nuclear weapon, that they will have an unacceptable nuclear response from their opponent. Currently, Russia has a doctrine of utilizing nuclear weapons to escalate a conflict for the purpose of deescalating. It’s nuts. It basically says that they’re more willing than any other state in the world to use nuclear weapons.
If we only have high-yield nukes and their view is to escalate to deescalate and they utilize a low-yield nuke, their expectation is that they’re not going to engage us in a response because the response would be disproportionate. So having the low-yield nuke option isn’t just an option for military need, it’s a deterrence need.
What would you say to those who would say that thinking leads to a new arms race?
To tell [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. You don’t sit at the start line and look at your opponent, your adversary, and have them running down the field and then start running yourself, and then someone say: “Well, you’re in a race now.” No, we were in a race from the moment your opponent started running.
So it sounds like you’re in favor of both the low-yield Trident warhead and a nuclear-capable cruise missile for nuclear submarines.
Do you think that’s something that HASC members will be supportive of, and how does that problem get solved within the budget?
I always say that people are classified briefings away from being a defense hawk. I think the way we satisfy this on the Armed Services Committee is that people need to know what our adversaries are doing. When you know what our adversaries are doing, you realize that this is not a choice, this is just the prudent path to ensure our national security.
More broadly speaking, though, this is a year where Congress is going to have solve sequestration again and come up with a budget deal. Are you hopeful that that’s going to be able to happen?
It has to, and in the end it’s happened every year. We had only once, a short period, where sequestration went into effect. Now, sequestration resulted in lowered top-line numbers, which caused a readiness crisis, that people now see, and universally acknowledge, that means that, not only do we need to avoid sequestration, we need to ensure our top-line numbers remain high.
What were your thoughts on the Missile Defense Review?
I was, as I said before, disappointed that they were not more strongly supporting the East Coast missile defense site. It is not just an issue of the emerging threat of Iran and looking to our East Coast as a possible vulnerability. It is ensuring that we have redundancy, ensuring that we have the ability to take multiple shots and we have no margin of error here.
What did you think about the proposal to create some sort of an interceptor for F-35s? Is that a good idea?
Some of these things are just trying to advance knowledge so that we can either achieve a specific capability, or it might lead us to another capability. I think it certainly makes logical sense, and let’s see where it takes us.
I’m guessing that maybe the study on space-based interceptors kind of falls into that box for you as well.
Absolutely. And, again, it’s looking to what our adversaries are doing and where we need to be.
I asked about Space Force but not generally about space. What would you like to see happen in space policy more broadly?
We are so space-dependent, on all of our ground and air operations, that not only do we need to look to defense mechanisms, but ways to ensure continuity of operation and really just expand what assets that we have because of their vulnerabilities.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.