Atlantic Council

A Strategy for America

Frederick Kempe,
President and CEO,
Atlantic Council

Representative Mac Thornberry (R-TX),
House Armed Services Committee

Barry Pavel,
Vice President, Atlantic Council; and
Director, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

Location: Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C.

Time: 9:00 a.m. EDT
Date: Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Transcript By
Superior Transcriptions LLC

FREDERICK KEMPE: Good morning and welcome. I’m Fred Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, and thanks so much for joining us. You always know that we have a big deal guest when we arrange our room in this fashion, so that’s the one giveaway here.

It’s a privilege to have Representative Mac Thornberry here, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, to share his prescriptions for American strategy from his vantage point on the congressional armed services leadership. This is one – as all of you in this room know, this is one of the most important jobs on Capitol Hill and really in the United States. And it’s an honor to have you here, and thank you for your service in this position.

Today’s discussion grows out of the Council’s expanding work on strategy, U.S. defense policy, and Congress’ role in American foreign policy leadership. This work would not be possible without the support and vision of George Lund, vice chairman of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He’ll be here just a little bit later on for your – for your presentation.

The Atlantic Council is one of Washington’s premier platforms for a full range of defense and security strategy discussions. The Commanders Series with four-star generals, the Captains of Industry Series with CEOs in the defense industry, Defense-Industrial Policy Series have all welcomed an array of leaders, from four-star generals, CEOs, service secretaries, acquisition chiefs to lay out their visions for their organizations and the future of the country’s security.

We’re delighted now to add this leading congressional voice to this conversation. So thank you, Chairman Thornberry, for speaking here today. It’s an important moment to be discussing your, quote/unquote, “Strategy for America,” and I know we’re all eager to hear what you will advise.

The U.S. tackles critical challenges in Europe, the Middle East, South China Sea. We were just talking in the hallway about what an array of challenges we face all at the same time. And you can’t really decide how to prioritize these challenges if you don’t have a real strategic view.

Brent Scowcroft, for whom we’ve named the Scowcroft Center on International Security here which is hosting this event, tells us often that during the Cold War over time one developed the strategy – containment of the Soviet Union, containment of the communist ideology in the world – and then the tactics were hard, and he complains now that we’re too much tactics and not enough strategy. So we’ve devoted ourselves in the Atlantic Council to redress that, and you’ll help us do that here today, Chairman Thornberry.

We believe the country needs a strategy-driven budget and not the other way around. At a time when our country’s challenges seem to be growing, Congress wrestles with intense budget constraints, and where United States consequently decides to invest today and in the future, is going to help write our defense and security strategies at home and abroad. This strategy effort works across the Council. We have a Strategic Foresight Initiative looking 20, 30 years in the future – long-term trends, to identify opportunities and challenges. We have a Middle East Strategy Task Force, co-chaired by Secretary Albright and Steve Hadley, looking at the challenges across the Middle East. And then we have the Lund Emerging Defense Challenges Initiative looking at the intersection of defense and industry.

So we’re delighted that the chairman is here this morning to tell us what he and his committee are already doing and what further needs to be done. Writing recently of America’s strategy toward the defense budget, Chairman Thornberry cautioned, quote, “Without a course change, history’s judgment will be harsh, and rightfully so.”

I’m now going to hand the floor over to Vice President of the Atlantic Council and the Director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security Barry Pavel, who has a lot of experience in these fields himself.

But before I do that, I have to make the most important announcement that you ever do in an introduction like this, and that is our Twitter hashtags. So you can use the account @ACScowcroft and we’re using the hashtag #ACDefense.

Thank you very much. Barry, the floor is yours.

BARRY PAVEL: Thank you very much, Fred. And I’ll just very – do a very brief introduction because I really want to hear from Congressman Thornberry.

As Fred said, the Scowcroft Center is focused quite a bit on the longer-range global security trends, with a particular attention to emerging challenges that could become tomorrow’s headlines and might not be fully appreciated today. Chairman Thornberry focuses on the same as he leads the House’s largest committee to ensure our military and other defense institutions are adequately prepared for the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Very often we host important panel discussions on topics of the day and the future, but it’s always important to hear directly from our leaders as to how they want to solve the problems we face and the strategies that we will need to employ. Chairman Thornberry, and certainly in my opinion as a former Pentagon official, has been at the forefront of many of our public conversations about our most pressing defense and security challenges, and I’m sure he will do so again this morning. It’s really my honor to introduce Chairman Thornberry today before his speech entitled “A Strategy for America” and the subsequent discussion, which I’m really looking forward to.

Chairman Thornberry has been in government for quite some time. He worked for five years as a Capitol Hill aide for Texas Representative Tom Loeffler and then became the chief of staff for Representative Larry Combest, another Texas Republican. In 1988, he became the deputy assistant secretary of State for legislative affairs in the Reagan administration. After taking a break from politics to work at a law firm in Amarillo while helping run his family’s cattle ranch, which I imagine helps to develop some similar skills for working in our legislature, he won the race for the 13th District of Texas to become its representative, a district he has diligently served since 1995.

In January of this year, he became the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, the first Texan to assume this position. And he has already made his mark by tackling some of the most important issues, some of the longest-standing knotty challenges, including defense acquisition reform, other aspects of military reform, how can the United States maintain its technological edge, and a number of the other important issues in the headlines, which include Russia, ISIS and Asian defense challenges as well.

So once again, Chairman Thornberry, we’re really honored to have you here with us today, and we greatly look forward to your remarks. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

REPRESENTATIVE MAC THORNBERRY (R-TX): Well, thank you, Barry. And I appreciate very much the chance to be here this morning.

I am very grateful for all the Atlantic Council has done over the years to help shape our security policies. We need clear, realistic, thoughtful thinking about our national security challenges now as much as we ever have, for we have had witness after witness come before us on the Armed Services Committee and say we face more serious, complex national security challenges now than we ever have, at least since the end of World War II. And I think this emphasis on looking ahead and trying to see the bigger picture is something we desperately need in all branches of government. So I certainly applaud the Council’s emphasis on that. While we grapple with the day-to-day of getting bills passed and so forth, we’re also trying to keep at least one eye focused on the longer range. But we need your help.

Of course, it’s also true, as you look ahead, you have to look behind. And so a lot of time and effort this year has been spent marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and it’s interesting that the thrill of victory of 1945 soon gave way to more somber realizations that we face(d) a different kind, but very serious threat as we moved into 1946. It was really a remarkable time because we had learned the hard way the consequences of withdrawal and weakness in world events, and now we had to navigate our way through this new role of being the indispensable world power and all the responsibilities that that entailed.

Looking back from the perspective of 70 years, there were two well-known warnings which were given to us in early 1946 that seemed, from this perspective even, amazingly prescient but also perceptive. And I think they continue to enlighten us today in this – the new face of tyranny that we confront.

As this audience well knows, George Kennan had clashed with superiors who were not really ready to hear about the realities that were driving Soviet Russia. But in response to some inquiries from the State and the Treasury Department in February 1946, he cabled back his famous long telegram. In it, he wrote “At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. And they have learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts or compromises with it.”

Then, less than two weeks later, a foreign politician, then in opposition, came to the United States and gave a speech which shook up public opinion about our former wartime ally. And Winston Churchill told an audience in Fulton, Missouri which included President Truman: “I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines. From what I’ve seen of our Russian friends and allies during the war, I’m convinced there is nothing they admire so much as strength. And there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.”

Of course, those insights, among others, helped guide our policy in the Cold War until the Soviet Union collapsed. And I think most of us who grew up during the Cold War knew that our country and all that we cared for and believed in were threatened by this entity that Kennan said would only find security in the total destruction of its rivals.

But, after the Soviet Union collapsed, most of us also thought and hoped that, without the ideology of communism, Russia would enter into the community of nations as a constructive, responsible participant. But just as Churchill and Stalin were misled – I mean, Churchill and Roosevelt were misled by Stalin, we’ve been disappointed and perhaps we underestimated something deeper in the Russian psyche that Kennan was pointing out pretty clearly.

So, despite warning signs as the Obama administration took office, they took a different approach toward Russia than that recommended by Kennan and Churchill. Vice president said within the first month it was time to set the reset button, and soon the secretary of State was off with a(n) actual, if mistranslated, button. Later that year, the president canceled the third site missile defense plan, surprising our allies in Poland and the Czech Republic. Next year, the president announced he’d concluded that the situation in Georgia no longer needed to be considered an obstacle to reaching agreements with the – with the Russians. And of course, there’s the famous incident with the microphone where the president was advising that he just needed a little more time to get past his election, where he needed a little more flexibility.

Meanwhile, while all of that is going on, we begin to cut our defense spending. And a new government in Ukraine that does not want to live under Moscow’s thumb leads to an invasion and annexation of Crimea, invasion and occupation of parts of Ukraine, in many ways the most significant breach of European borders since the end of World War II. We’ve dealt with that with economic sanctions and some training exercises, but so far the administration and some of our European allies have refused to provide the Ukrainians with the lethal assistance that they’ve asked for in order to defend themselves.

You know, Lenin is often quoted as saying, “Probe with bayonets.” If you encounter mush, proceed. If you encounter steel, withdraw. Well, it seems that Mr. Putin and those around him don’t see economic sanctions and training exercises as steel.

So what’s happening today is the Russian defense budget is going up by about 10 percent despite those sanctions. While limits on strategic launchers and warheads are equal under the New START Treaty, Russia is modernizing both with new ICBMs and new long-range cruise missiles, among other things. All the meanwhile, they continue to crank our new nuclear warheads and maintain an advantage on tactical warheads, about 10 times what we do. Russian military openly discusses doctrinal changes which show a broadened use of the circumstances under which they’d use nuclear weapons. They continue to be in violation of the INF Treaty. And of course, we’ve seen these aggressive actions with planes and ships that we never saw during the Cold War.

In addition, they are launching a massive and relentless misinformation campaign, not only internally but to neighboring countries. And if one visits Eastern Europe, you hear a lot about that. Even on the political front, media reports evidence that Russia helps finance green protests and anti-fracking movements in Europe while providing employment for former European officeholders. The dominant topic of this year’s Munich Security Conference was hybrid warfare, which is a blend of tactics and deception designed to hide the advances that you’re making and to complicate the responses of an adversary. The Russians aren’t the only ones using these tactics, but they are particularly problematic for us.

So, in summary, the next president will have sitting on his or her desk a situation in which the one country that could pose an existential threat to the United States has growing military capabilities, an increased willingness to use them, a string of provocative actions and outright aggression, along with brazen deception as a matter of government policy, without much of an effective response so far. And my point is, that’s just one of the national security challenges that’s going to be on the next president’s desk. It’s truly daunting.

So what should we do? Now, in truth in advertising, 535 members of Congress are not going to devise or implement a national security strategy. That’s not what the first branch of the government can do. What we can do is help clarify thinking, enlighten public opinion, and ensure that the next president has all of the tools he or she will need in order to defend the country and protect our interests around the world.

So I suggest that there are five elements that are key for us to focus on over the next several months.

Number one is to speak the truth. Historic changes after World War II came about because Kennan, Churchill and others were willing to speak the truth. Domestic political calculations and spin are too often the enemy of the truth. Americans and others need to know the facts about Russian involvement in Ukraine, for example. I also think we Americans tend to undervalue the battle of ideas. We seemed to take it pretty seriously during the Cold War, but whether it’s the struggle against radical Islam or against European aggression, the fight for the truth to be heard is especially important in a networked world. Among other benefits, it lets the allies know that they’re not in this by themselves. We need the organizations, the capability and the political will to fight on that battlefield, and we are not doing very well at this point.

Secondly, we need to strengthen our defenses, and that starts with how much we spend. Now, as was mentioned, next year’s budget is the subject of a variety of political maneuverings on Capitol Hill and in the White House these days. Both the House and the Senate have passed budget resolutions and now defense authorization bills that provide as much money for defense – exactly as much money for defense – as the president requested, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs has said this is the lower ragged edge of what is needed in order to defend the country. And yet the president has threatened to veto either the authorization or the appropriation bill, or both, unless he gets more money for some domestic programs such as the IRS and the EPA. As a matter of fact, just last Friday the president told a group of mayors that “I will not sign bills” seeking “to increase defense spending before addressing any of our needs here at home.”

Of course, history has a way of turning irony into tragedy, because today Secretary of Defense Carter is in Europe working to bolster the NATO alliance commitment to spending more money on defense and to stiffening spines against the Russians, and he does that just as the president is holding hostage our own request – his own request to increase funding for defense. My suggestion is nothing would send a stronger signal and to bolster Secretary Carter’s message than for the president to agree to sign the defense bills with the money that he asked for.

Increasing money in the Overseas Contingency account, of course, is not the ideal way to fund defense. I fully agree that we very much need higher, consistent, predictable funding. But holding defense spending hostage for the EPA is not a way to achieve that, and it certainly doesn’t make our country safer. The fact is, defense spending has been cut, when you count the effects of inflation, 21 percent in the last four years. The world, I hate to tell you, is not 21 percent safer than it was four years ago.

Charles Krauthammer has famously noted that decline is a choice. We have a choice right now: to meet the lower ragged edge of what it takes to defend the country, or to play politics and end up with significantly less than is required. And I think this choice is going to say a lot about what the next 70 years looks like.

Now, as far as how we spend that money to strengthen our defense, our nuclear deterrent requires special attention. This week, our committee is going to have a hearing with the deputy secretary of Energy, the deputy secretary of Defense and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs to focus just on this topic. As a matter of fact, we’re spending about 10 days in classified and unclassified sessions just looking at our nuclear deterrent. It is the foundation for all of our defense efforts, and yet I think we have taken for granted the systems, the infrastructure and the people that keep those complex machines safe, reliable and effective. The weapons and the delivery systems are all aging out at about the same time and are going to have to be a major priority for the next president and for Congress.

In tight budgets, it’s always tempting to shave off a little bit of the research and development funding. Tight budgets also cause institutional interests to become more protective about keeping what they’ve got. Neither of those temptations helps us to meet the challenge of peer competitors. Deputy Secretary Work is leading a push known as the Third Offset Strategy to stop the further erosion of American technological superiority. And that is an effort, I think, that is both important and urgent.

Few defense systems add uncertainty and complications into an adversary’s planning process as much as missile defense, and few defense systems help reassure our allies as much. An expedited push on both technology and fielding existing systems on missile defense is needed.

And finally, the new domain of warfare, cyber, poses special challenges for those of us who value the rule of law, but the threat is growing faster than we are able to deal with it. And I don’t worry much about our technological ability – expertise or ability to keep up. What I worry about is our laws and policies are not keeping up. And that is also an area for not only money, but time and attention.

The third key, I think, for our future is to improve our agility. So we need to make sure that the resources we spend on defense are spent wisely and more efficiently, and that is part of the reason you see such an emphasis on defense reform coming from both the House and the Senate this year. But to me, even more important than spending money efficiently is that we have to approve the agility of our system. To be blunt, if it continues to take us 20 years to field a new airplane, we will never keep our technological superiority over allies – over adversaries. While there are certain trends that we can see, such as the increasing importance of cyber, there is much in this volatile world that we cannot see, so we have to be agile enough to respond to the unexpected.

And rigidity, I would suggest, is our enemy, whether that rigidity is in bureaucratic organizations, in military strategy and tactics, or in our procurement systems or our political decision-making. This year, in the House and the Senate, we are focused on acquisition reform, on reducing overhead, and on personnel reform. It’s a start. But we all have to put our heads together to ensure that our defense systems are as agile as they need to be in a world where the threats move literally at the speed of light.

The fourth key to me is to stand strong with allies. While the United States must have the ability to defend ourselves and our interests on our own, it’s preferable and more likely that we will do so with allies. Whether it’s in Europe, Asia or the Middle East, allies must pull their share of the weight. The fact that only four NATO allies are meeting the 2 percent of GDP target is not only unfair, it is probably seen by Moscow as further evidence of mush. The U.S. has to lead by example – which is part of the reason our defense budgets are so important – and stop the decline in our own budgets, but we have to demand that our allies meet the targets for theirs as well.

We also, in my view, have to give those willing to defend their country against aggression the means to do so. Both the House and the Senate defense authorization bills provide such authorization, to provide lethal defensive assistance for Ukraine for example. It’s disturbing to me to see that some people here and in Europe seem to want to sit on Mount Olympus and make judgment calls about who is worthy and who is not worthy to defend their country against invasion. Look, it may be that if the Ukrainians receive additional lethal assistance that Putin will up the ante. But they still have a right to defend themselves, and Putin will pay a price in increasing casualties, one he is obviously very nervous about paying.

I think we also need here a concerted effort to look at what works and what doesn’t work with our training-and-equip efforts. We’ve had successes and we’ve had failures, and one of the projects our committee will look at later this year is to look at both and try to learn the lessons from what works and what doesn’t. Again, we’re going to have to work with allies in a variety of places around the world, and we need to understand how we can better enable those allies to meet their security challenges.

Fifth, and lastly, we’ve got to make sure we use all instruments of national power. In 2007, I served on the Commission on Smart Power, whose recommendations were largely a matter of common sense before they got demoted into the political realm. We need the full range of capabilities and the judgment to know which tool to use in what circumstance. Secretaries of Defense have become some of the strongest advocates for funding of other government agencies. And yet the day-to-day frustration of antiquated approaches, bureaucratic infighting, and stovepiped bureaucracies have meant that more and more tasks have been assigned to the military and the Department of Defense. Look, I think they can – they will and do whatever they are asked, but sometimes I worry that we are asking our military to do too much because of the inability of other agencies to pull their weight as well.

One clear example of a non-defense tool that would make a difference in national security is to end the ban on oil exports. The result would be lower fuel prices for our consumers, higher prices for our energy producers, and a step towards allowing several nations to wean themself off Russian energy.

In sum, today we live in an unstable new world with some important parallels to those faced at the end of World War II. The past gives us some examples to follow, but also some warnings that we should be wary about. Before World War II began in the mid-1930s, as Britain was losing its superiority in the air over Germany, Churchill lamented: “When the situation was manageable, it was neglected. And now that it is thoroughly out of hand, we apply too late the remedies which then might have affected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – those are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.” “Needless” indeed. We must not allow ourselves to fall into the trap, as too many others before us have.

On the other hand, we have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and to benefit from their example, those who did meet their historical moment to set up the institutions which enabled us to win the Cold War. We, too, have the opportunity to craft a security structure that rises to the challenge of our dangerous, volatile world, and so that 70 years from now generations can look back and say, they did their job pretty well. I would suggest to you that we must not let them down. Thank you. (Applause.)

MR. PAVEL: Thank you very much, Congressman Thornberry. I thought your – the five elements of our strategy were very, very comprehensive. They reflect a lot of the themes here that we’ve been drawing on as we look at the longer-range trends, in particular you emphasis on agility. And we just put out a strategy paper that talks about the need to prepare for the unexpected and the need to try to harness the changes that are underway in the international system, which is called “Dynamic Stability.”

And then you also mentioned your last element, drawing on all elements of – all elements of national power. General Jones, who’s the chairman of the Scowcroft Center here – and I’m sure you know him well – oversaw the development of a report with that very title, saying much of the same things that you’re saying, that we need to do a better job of using all instruments, including the energy instrument, which is very, very important.

And I also loved the way you weaved – you drew attention to the linkages to resources. I think it was General Jones on our board who has the saying, a strategy without a sense of resources is a hallucination. And so it’s really important to be able to marshal the resources that we have, and I thought your strategy is quite sound.

I also wanted to recognize a number of board members and ambassadors from around town who are in the audience for this discussion, and I’ll just ask a couple of questions and then would love to hear from this audience on all the important issues that you – that you raised.

The first question that comes to mind, I think, on your strategy is there are so many challenges that are out there today and that are – we know are coming soon, and that I know you spend a lot of time on helping the Defense Department prepare for. How do you – how do we prioritize our resources, our national security priorities across Russia, a newly resurgent Russia which really in many ways is declining, which makes it more dangerous over the long term; ISIS, which has unknown global capacity but certainly is causing a lot of problems with our core allies and partners in the Middle East; and then we know China’s power is continuing to rise and there’s not a stable security equilibrium in Asia either, which could definitely impinge on America’s vital interests? So if you could help us think through, using your strategy, how do we sort of prioritize across those types of challenges in particular. And what would you recommend that we – that we do under your strategy?

REP. THORNBERRY: I think the defining characteristic is that we can’t say, OK, this is number one, this is number two and this is number three, because it is such a volatile world with so many dangers it prevents us from being able to make maybe the relatively simple sort of prioritization that we have done in the past. Now, if you start asking people, they will have different priorities on what they’re most worried about. For example, a senior military person says that – worries most about Russia and that China is way down on the list because they at least seem to make rational decisions. You know, and partly it gets back to what you were saying, this – the sense of decline in Russia, in population and elsewhere, gives a sense of urgency and maybe unpredictability to their actions. On the other hand, you didn’t mention North Korea, which is totally unpredictable; the Iranians, as they continue to extend their influence in mischievous ways, regardless of how the nuclear talks come out; and the list goes on and on. I think we have to – we have to be ready for peer competitors, which includes technological investment on our part, but we – I just – this working more closely with allies who are more capable is just going to be an essential part of dealing with terrorism and a variety of these other challenges. But we don’t have the luxury of saying, OK, this, not this. We have to do it all.

MR. PAVEL: I see.

Well, let’s talk about Russia a little bit. There’s an ongoing debate in Washington and with our allies about whether we should arm – provide legitimate defensive military equipment to the Ukrainians. Are you – I got the sense you are in favor of that. What impact do you think that would have? Could it cause escalation? Could it be more dangerous than the status quo? Does it depend on Putin’s intentions or on pushing back on mush versus steel?

REP. THORNBERRY: Yeah, well, let me say, first, I think if a vote – a couple of votes have been held, but I think there are overwhelming majorities in both the House and the Senate in both parties that support providing defensive lethal assistance to Ukraine. You see that in, as I say, both the House and the Senate bills, but we voted on it before. There is just strong support for that.

Now, the argument you hear back from the Germans and others is, OK, you send them some lethal assistance, Putin’s just going to up the ante and more people are going to die. You know, nobody can say that will not be the result. But as I indicated, I am wary of being this judge on high that determines when somebody can defend their country and when they can’t. It may be that there is escalation. I certainly would never argue that Ukraine could ever be armed well enough to defeat Russia in some sort of battle. Of course not. But on the other hand, Putin is going to extraordinary lengths to hide the degree of Russian involvement, and especially Russian casualties, from his population, and maybe he thinks the world. I think ratcheting up the cost a little is a good thing if the Ukrainians are willing to do that.

Now, obviously there’s lots of training that needs to go on. We’ve been slow about helping them. But there’s some pretty simple systems that could make a big difference, especially anti-armor, that they could certainly use, and I think they ought to be given that opportunity.

MR. PAVEL: Do you think this is the beginning – I mean, staying on Russia and Europe, which is sort of a muscle that the national security establishment hasn’t exercised here in quite a while, really, since the Cold War, do you think this is a different era in European history? Or do you think that the Ukraine crisis might be a blip and we’ll return to some sort of broader accommodation with Russia once this is resolved?

REP. THORNBERRY: I don’t know. I am – I am under the influence of Kennan’s long telegram, as I mentioned, and I am wondering whether the blip in history was from ’91 till 2010 or whatever date one wants to choose. I think – as I mentioned, I think there are maybe deeper things in the Russian psyche that – they come through over time. Not to say they can’t change. Not to say that we should not try to engage them in constructive ways if they’re willing to be a constructive partner; I am all for that. But I think we elude ourselves if we think, OK, Putin will nibble off a little bit of Ukraine and then he’ll be satisfied and then he’ll stay home and rest. I don’t think that’s going to happen.

MR. PAVEL: Just one more question on Russia and then I would love to turn it over to the audience, so just catch my attention if you have – if you have questions. There’s been sort of a new element that we hadn’t seen in quite a while, was this nuclear saber-rattling by President Putin and by Russian officials – a lot of – a lot more activity by their nuclear forces, as you – as you mentioned, a lot more investments in their nuclear force modernization. How worried are you about that part of NATO’s strategy? It strikes me that other parts of the challenge are being addressed. We have other – we have various alliance initiatives to help defend the frontier. We’re discussing whether we should arm Ukraine. But what I’m not seeing a lot of attention to is, do we have a sense for nuclear deterrence or are we just revering back to Cold War thinking. And is there a dangerous gap there that we might want to – want to try to fill?

REP. THORNBERRY: Well, I think you’ve got two things. One is, as Russian population declines, as their oil revenue goes down, it seems they are putting greater emphasis on the nuclear weapons that they have and much greater saber-rattling, as well as investments. That’s where – that’s where they’re putting their money.

Now, on the other side, as I mentioned, ours are atrophying. The weapons systems and the delivery systems I think we’ve taken for granted. They are getting older and older, as are the people who built them. And so, you know, in any sort of net assessment, you look at both sides, and it’s not a good – a good outlook right now.

So that’s part of the reason we are spending a considerable amount of time focused on the nuclear deterrent. I think most of my colleagues on the Hill don’t know that we’re going to have the delivery systems and the weapons all reaching a critical point about the same time. It’s going to be very expensive. But very expensive means roughly 5 percent of our defense budget, you know, and yet it’s the foundation upon which all our other defense activities are based. But technologically, financially, it’s – and expertise-wise, it’s not going to be easy, which is – which is why we’re trying to get a little head start on the next administration.

MR. PAVEL: Great.

And we have Ellen Tauscher here, who’s the vice chair of the Brent Scowcroft Center, who is one of the foremost experts on this question. Maybe we’ll hear from Ellen later.

So I wanted to start with questions. We have a number of hands raised, but the first one was Randy Fort. And if you could identify yourself, please, that would be great.

Q: Thank you. Randy Fort with Raytheon.

Congressman, thank you for your thoughts. I just wondered – you mentioned technology. Looking forward, there’s some amazing technology developments that are taking place: the Internet of things, big data, 3-D printing. On the military side: autonomous systems, hypersonics, directed energy. So as you look forward in the next five to 10, 15 years, perhaps to 2030, how do you see those technologies playing out in terms of how they will affect this strategy? Will those new technologies super-enable us to be even more capable of dealing with these threats? Or how do you see the future and the impacts of those technologies on some of these issues you’re talking about? Thank you.

REP. THORNBERRY: Well, I think one key feature is a lot of the technologies you mentioned are in the commercial sector. That means that we are not going to have exclusive rights to them. And so I mentioned Bob Work’s Third Offset Strategy. If you look at previous strategies, it has been intensive government investment to get technology available that basically stayed within government and gave us this superiority over adversaries. That’s not happening anymore. It’s not going to happen anymore. There are some areas where the military does need to make investments for uniquely military capability. But we just had a discussion last week on the Internet of things. Just as your refrigerator is going to be connected to the Internet or to some sort of network connection, what makes you think that a fighter jet or the machine that tests the fighter is not going to be connected, and thus vulnerable to some sort of nefarious actor?

So it’s a mixed bag, is the short answer. They will be helpful to us in meeting these threats, but they will also pose new threats to us. And the question, back to my agility point, is, are we going to be agile enough to benefit from commercial technology? Are we going to make it easy enough for these commercial firms to deal with the Department of Defense? Or are we going to make it such a bureaucratic nightmare that they’re going to say, I don’t need you? And I worry about that. Part of the reason we’re doing acquisition reform.

MR. PAVEL: Very good.

And question from Ellen Tauscher here in the front row.


MR. PAVEL: (Laughs.)

Q: Mr. Chairman, it’s so nice to see you. It’s been 20 years that we’ve worked together, especially on the nuclear issues.

I’m very excited that you’re going to be having this 10-day study group. Fewer and fewer members know about the complex, know about the weapons. And frankly, the American people don’t understand the nature of, the importance of the nuclear deterrent. Talk a little bit about what we’re going to have to do, both as a strategic narrative to get the money and to get the votes, and what we’re going to have to do to get a national consensus that we still have nuclear weapons, whether the president says in his speech he’d like to go to zero, but he doesn’t expect it will happen in his lifetime, it’ll take patience and persistence. But with more countries trying to get nuclear weapons, and certainly with the Russians bending the rules a little bit here and there and doing what they’re doing, what do we do to have a vital strategic deterrent that is alive and working? How do you get the investment dollars to do that?

REP. THORNBERRY: Well, I think you’re right. We’ve got a tremendous education campaign within Congress, not to mention the rest of the country. So just to take one example, we’ve had a couple votes this year on whether to set a separate fund to replace the Ohio-class submarine. If you don’t have some sort of separate account to replace the Ohio class, where most of our nuclear deterrent is based, then basically you end up with no money left to fund any other ship in the Navy. I mean, it’s that expensive. So I think we are at least beginning to let folks know this bow wave that’s coming. Long-range bombers is underway. We’ve got missile upgrades that are needed in the future. There’s some progress, but I think where we really are lacking is with the weapons themselves.

You know, we have – we have – it has I hate to say gone so well, because a lot of people have sacrificed. There have been mistakes made in our history since the Manhattan Project. But the truth is our nuclear deterrent has been so safe/reliable that we have learned to take it – we have come to take it for granted, and the people who make it possible. So, as you know as well as I do, those people who have made it possible are retiring out. It has not become the desirable sort of area for scientists to go in, as it once was. We are trying to give them computer and other tools – the NIF facility in your old district – to help – to keep those weapons safe and reliable, and yet we’ve let the infrastructure deteriorate. So just we have lost people in the – engineers in the nuclear complex to go work in the energy industry, partly because they had to, well, shoo rats off their lunch in some of the facilities that they were working in. So (enlightened/and lighten ?), but I still worry that we are asking labs to do the impossible, which is to keep complex machines running at peak condition forever. And I’m just not sure that can happen.

So, then can we have a national conversation about building new weapons? That’s something that we haven’t been able to even have a conversation about for a while, but I think we’re going to have to.

MR. PAVEL: And that will be a very important and dicey proposition that we hope doesn’t go off the political rails.

I think I saw a question over here. Yes?

Q: Derek Klater (ph) with Human Rights First.

I’m curious what your current strategy is for passing – reconciling the NDAA so that is passes through the House and the Senate and not get vetoed by the president.

REP. THORNBERRY: (Chuckles.) Well, it’s – it has passed two – the House has passed its version. The Senate, as you know, last Thursday passed its version. So starting this week, I think, Senator McCain and I will be meeting to work out the differences in the two. There’s not a lot of differences. They’re largely along the same track. And I was heartened to see that the Senate bill passed 71-25, I think, so overwhelming bipartisan support, which is traditionally the way that the defense authorization bill has been. It has been passed by congresses of both parties and signed into law by presidents of both parties for 53 straight years.

So what do you do about a president who chooses to veto it unless the EPA gets more funding? I don’t know. That’s a hard question. But what we’re going to try to do over the next month is to work out the House/Senate differences, get that final conference report, pass it out of the House and the Senate, and give him the opportunity. I hope he will do the right thing.

MR. PAVEL: Question over here from Ron Marks in the second row.

Q: Thank you. A little more short-term question here.

The Russians have been very aggressive in cyberspace, not only with raids on our own systems but also in terms of propaganda and other things. Simultaneously, we seem to be holding back on adding 5,000 people to Cyber Command at this point, at least by a delay of contract right now. I was wondering if you could talk a little about what you envision in terms of our cyber strategy in the military space. Do we need to shift from what we have right now, or is there something else that you have in mind, et cetera?

REP. THORNBERRY: Well, I think we made a lot of progress in the last few years as far as developing cyber expertise and building out the organizations of teams who can help operate in that space. In 2011, the first hearing I had in our Emerging Threats Subcommittee asked the question, what is the responsibility of the military to defend private networks in cyberspace? And I don’t think we’ve really answered that question yet. If a fleet of bombers is coming for the Houston Ship Channel to damage the refineries there, we know what we would expect the military to do. If a bunch of packets come through the Internet against the same refineries, what does the military do? Right now it does nothing.

So I feel pretty good about – I feel very good about our expertise. I feel pretty good about our organizations. It is the one area when – as defense spending has declined 21 percent, it’s the one area that we’re funding, has gone up, and I think that’s appropriate. What I don’t feel good about, as I mentioned, are the policy and the laws, and high on my list is: What’s the military’s responsibility to protect private networks? There’s some sort of interaction going on, but we have lost valuable years in information sharing and other things because of the Snowden leaks and the political manipulation of those things here at home. But every day, you know, it just gets worse and worse. So far what we’ve seen is personal information which has been stolen, but I don’t know of anybody that thinks that’s where it’s going to stop. As serious as that is, to lose security clearances, et cetera, I don’t know of anybody who says that’s the end of the story. And what’s the military’s responsibility to protect our banking system, our nuclear grid, et cetera? We haven’t worked it out yet.

MR. PAVEL: In the front row here we have Ambassador Negroponte.

Q: Thank you. Good morning, Mr. Chairman. Nice to see you again.


Q: Another relatively short-term question. Looking ahead the next 18 months both at Afghanistan and Iraq, do you visualize – this is a very speculative question, but do you visualize this administration basically handing over the situation to its successor with some kind of a troop presence in both of those countries so that the next administration will have some options, at least, as to whether it may wish, in either or both of those countries, to retain some kind of longer-term residual presence?

REP. THORNBERRY: I think so. I mean, my guess – and, as you say, this is speculative – my guess is that the administration is running out the clock. They don’t – we had a hearing last week on – with Secretary Carter and Chairman Dempsey. I don’t think there is a strategy for success in Iraq or Syria against ISIS. I think they are trying just not to lose and run out the clock. I think a similar thing is in Afghanistan. The situation seems to be deteriorating. The idea that we would keep some folks in the four corners of Afghanistan so that we would have a presence that would help advise the Afghans has not played out. We’re down to basically a couple of locations. But rather than have a total withdrawal, my guess is they keep a handful of folks, not enough to make a difference positively, but basically put it in the next president’s lap along with the other things we’ve been talking about.

MR. PAVEL: There’s a question in the back there.

Q: Congressman Thornberry, thank you. I just wanted to ask if –

MR. PAVEL: Could you identify yourself?

Q: Oh, sorry. Evan Gottesman, Rutgers University.

So I just wanted to ask, if we were to arm Ukraine, as you suggested, how would we, first, preserve our cooperation with Russia on areas of shared interest like ISIS, which draws many of its members from Russian territories and from nearby countries like Tajikistan, where the military – or the security commander just defected to ISIS? And how would we also mediate the potential negative fallout with our important NATO allies, like Germany, which you mentioned does not support arming Ukraine and who would certainly more immediately feel the impacts of any escalation in the war in Ukraine, owing to their geographic proximity and their greater trade links with Eastern Europe and with Russia?

REP. THORNBERRY: Well, I think it’s true the Germans and others are – have economic ties that make them less willing to speak the truth about what’s happening in Ukraine and to confront the Russians. And yet, if we allow that strategy to prevent us from taking action, because one of our allies has economic ties with the Russians or the Chinese or whoever, we’re going to really be handicapped in being able to protect our security interests in the future.

So, look, I’m convinced the Russians don’t do anything that is not in their interest. So do they have an interest in fighting terrorism? Absolutely. Now, where does that rank in their priorities I couldn’t tell you. But if they think it’s in their interest to cooperate against ISIS or other terrorist organizations, then I think they’ll do it.

You know, the rest of the story is what has happened in Chechnya is that you have these thugs that basically seem to idolize Putin and are perhaps an internal and external sort of vigilante force on his behalf. So that situation has changed a fair amount, and you know, I think we got to do the right thing. And failing to do the right thing because of fear that we would lose some information or that the Germans might be aggravated on us is seen as mush.

MR. PAVEL: Thank you, Congressman.

Yes, a question right here in the second row.

Q: Thank you. TASS News Agency, Russia.

Mr. Thornberry, a quick follow up on Defense Authorization Act. Am I right that you expect that this bill will come to the White House in a few weeks? And aren’t you afraid that the weapons you will send to Ukraine will come to ultranationalists like Azov Battalion?

REP. THORNBERRY: Well, I think if we provide weapons, it would go to the government – the duly elected government of Ukraine and it would be used to help defend against this aggression, this invasion of their territory, which includes Russian troops. So that’s how they would be used.

Now, the government of Ukraine has to calibrate, you know, their policies in the east, and I think they have talked about greater autonomy and a variety of things for those regions. But I think that the government of the Ukraine ought to be able to preserve and protect its territorial integrity against those who have committed this aggression, and that’s how the weapons would be used.

MR. PAVEL: Yes, August Cole here in the second row.

Q: Thank you, Congressman. I’m August Cole. I direct the Art of Future Warfare Project at the Council.

I was interested in your read on the Russian-Chinese relationship and where you see that today and how it will evolve in the coming years.

REP. THORNBERRY: A little bit of closer ties based on convenience, I think, and self-interest. Obviously, President Xi is taking a much more aggressive role in world affairs, as is Mr. Putin, so they have some things in common. But I don’t know that I would look for some long-term alliance between the two. They just have too many other conflicting or potentially conflicting interests. But, you know, just going back to the theme of the day, looking at all of these things happening at once in the world today presents enormous challenges for us, and this is just an added wrinkle, an added dimension to those challenges.

MR. PAVEL: In the back row over there.

Q: Anne Sisk, University of Maryland.

So, Mr. Chairman, first, thank you for speaking to us today. And I thought it was – I really liked the way you started with truth, and that’s something that I think as Americans is important to all of us.

And I was wondering if – currently and especially if we do provide lethal assistance to Ukraine, it’s been incredibly easy for the Russian news media to portray everything that’s going on as American- and NATO-based aggression, that the Russians are just responding to us. And that’s not a hard sell to a lot of people. So how would you – how can we, as Americans, do these actions and provide weapons to people, but also try and turn around and tell 140 (million) Russian citizens that, no, no, no, we’re just – we’re doing the right thing, we’re trying to help you. So how would you balance our aggressions and also trying to spread truth to them?

REP. THORNBERRY: Look, I think one of the most important messages we can say and one of the most important messages that can come from our action is that we stand with allies and that we resist aggression, and our actions ought to be consistent with our words. The problem is when you say things and don’t follow them up with actions you end up with red lines in Syria, which only ends up inviting – causing people to discount what you say and leads to further aggressive actions. So that’s – I think our rhetoric and our actions have to be consistent and merge up.

Now, the rest of the story is, as I mentioned and you allude, the Russians have an amazing internal and external propaganda machine where they even deny that their troops are involved in Ukraine and have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide the degree of their involvement. And that’s why I think it’s – this is hard for us to do since the end of the Cold War, but we have to be better engaged in the battlefield of ideas, whether it is telling the truth about what’s happening in Ukraine or whether it is battling the spread of the radical Islamist ideology through the Internet and other ways. We are just not very good. And it’s not all up to us, but we can do much more than we have been doing, and too often we’ve tied our own hands.

So a few years ago – I can’t remember exactly the year – Adam Smith and I passed a provision to amend for the first time in a long time the Smith-Mundt Act, which very few people probably have ever heard of. But it is – it was one of the obstacles that prevents us from engaging in this battlefield of ideas when you’ve got a global network that can reach American citizens just as easy as it can meet other people. But it was just the beginning step, and you wouldn’t believe the flack that we got over that.

We’re going to have to engage truthfully, but much more aggressively in this space than we have.

MR. PAVEL: I agree.

Yes, the gentleman right here on the aisle.

Q: Morning, Mr. Chairman. Aldo Kreiser (ph), SEAPOWER Magazine.

The problem with the NDA and the appropriations bills that are coming up, you know, is the administration’s insistence that, you know, the domestic side gets some, you say. OK. Deputy Secretary Work said today he thinks a compromise is to end sequestration, the BCA, is possible. What’s your view? Is there any possibility that they can get another grand, you know, deal, like we did two years ago to end the – either end or soften sequestration in the Budget Control Act?

REP. THORNBERRY: Sure it’s possible. The question is, does all the players want to find an answer, or do some players see it to their political benefit to provoke a dramatic confrontation? And that’s a hard question, I think, for me to know all the answer to.

But just differentiate for a second. The defense authorization bill is basically the policy bill, so to threaten to veto that really makes no sense. It is just political hysterics would be the only reason, or to provoke a confrontation would be the only reason to do that. When you get to the appropriation bills, then it gets a little more challenging.

But I’ll just say this: politically, a president to veto even a defense appropriation bill that provides exactly the amount of money that he requested for defense, that his top military adviser says is the lower ragged edge of what it takes to defend the country, and so he vetoes that bill because he’s trying to leverage our military to get more spending on his domestic priorities is a very risky political strategy in the sort of volatile, complex, dangerous world that we’ve been talking about all day. I still have a hard time believing that that’s what it comes to, but we’ll see.

MR. PAVEL: I think we have time for one more question, so right here.

Q: Sir, hi. George Nicholson, consultant, U.S. Special Operations Command.

You alluded to strategy and the need for that. I know – then you alluded to George Kennan. I know when President Eisenhower became president one of the first things he did is he established the Solarium initiative, and Michele Flournoy has alluded to that and said maybe it’s time for another Solarium initiative. What are your views on that?

REP. THORNBERRY: I think it’s past time. I think it would be very helpful.

The question I have struggled with is how can we impose strategic thinking, require strategic thinking, from the legislative branch. And whether – I’ve tried to look at several examples over history, including Eisenhower’s Solarium Project, and I keep running into the problem that if a president doesn’t want to do it, it just doesn’t make much difference.

And so I think there are a number of members, both parties, both House and the Senate, who are – who believe strongly that we have let our strategy muscle atrophy over – and are too much reactionary, tactical; that we need, as Barry was mentioning, to have a strategy to which we can tie resources. But how we advance that cause from the legislative branch is something that we’re still grappling with. But we are grappling with it, and if you got any bright ideas we’d love to hear them.

MR. PAVEL: Well, that’s a perfect way to end. We’re doing so much work here on strategy, including a lot of collaboration with other think tanks who are working on it, so we’ll – there will be more to come on that.

But I really can’t thank you enough for coming here for your five elements of a strategy for the country. I think the most important element may be the first one, as you said: speaking the truth and making sure that we’re much more effective in prosecuting the questions of ideas and the struggle of ideas across many fronts. If we get that right, the rest is easy. If we don’t, then we’re not going to win in any of these conflicts. But thank you so much for your time.

After the congressman leaves – makes his way out, if everybody could remain seated so he can – we can escort him out quickly, that would be very helpful for his schedule. But please join me in thanking him for coming here as well. (Applause.)