The House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee conducts oversight of Army and Air Force acquisition programs, all Navy and Marine Corps aviation programs and the National Guard and Army and Air Force National Guard and Reserve. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the subcommittee and a former mayor of Dayton, is well known in the House for campaigning to end budget caps that were passed in 2011. He talked Army networks, Space Corps and defense budgeting with Defense News on Capitol Hill on Oct. 5.
The House and Senate are working to reconcile their versions of the annual defense policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act. For the air/land portion, what would you call out?
One thing I’m proud of is that the Senate followed us in the Economic Order Quantity initiative to allow our foreign purchases of the F-35 to leverage with our supply chain to lower the overall costs for U.S. production. This, over the life of the initiative, could save us just under a billion dollars. We can’t block-buy; they can. By leveraging it with our foreign partners on our supply chain, it can allow us to secure better pricing. The Senate has followed us in this. So, we’re looking at reconciling the two provisions and taking those savings and incorporating it in the program.
Where will there be friction in NDAA talks?
In the Army network, [Warfighter Information Network Tactical (WIN-T)], one and two reprogramming requests, that’s going to be an area of conflict. I think our subcommittee is skeptical as to whether or not the Army really has a plan or if they’re just disadvantaging themselves in the process of getting technical advancement to our troops. Now the Senate seems, with their work product, more inclined to allow the Army a complete start-over. We actually want to know what it is you’re going to do before we buy into a start-over, knowing how critical this will be, whole communications systems are to our troops.
Army wants to move about a half a billion dollars and cancel the WIN-T Increment 2 and a couple others at the end of fiscal year 2018. Key senators have rapped the Army over WIN-T, whereas House lawmakers are giving Army a pretty thorough questioning over plans to move off WIN-T. Will there be a battle there?
The whole goal that we have is to take service members that are coming into the Army and being able to hand to them technological communication systems that are at least comparable to what they had — capability in high school. We give a technological gap between what they experience in just civil life and then in what we ask them to do in critical missions.
The Army has taken 10-year and 20-year plans for technology that has an 18-month shelf life. We’re behind. And obviously, our near peers have continued to modernize, putting in threat our systems and our ability to operate. So, the question is what are we going to do, not just what we’re not going to do.
Is there any sympathy for their argument that “this isn’t working. We need to rip the bandage off and start over”?
It’s not true [that] it’s not working. In fact, it’s been delivered, tested and fielded. So, the issue is not it’s not working. The issue is: What are our goals and objectives? What are our technology needs? And how do you achieve those and — the Army’s going to need to have an answer, at least in scoping and in implementation while they explain the nearly six billion dollars that have already been spent.
There’s this kind of broader story about a track record in the Army acquisitions failures: Future Combat Systems, Ground Combat Vehicle, Armed Aerial Scout. Is the Army’s bad reputation for acquisitions deserved, and if it is, how does it make a fix?
All service branches, we see some failures of the acquisition process, which is why it’s been such an important aspect of [House Armed Services Committee] Chairman [Mac] Thornberry’s policy goals for the committee. It’s not agile. It overburdens with requirements; it under-manages; and then it does about-faces on a regular basis. We have to get better on that. But the answer isn’t, “Let’s just cancel everything.” At least you want to know that you have a plan. If you award the Army a “D” in this program and you say they’re a “D student,” and they come, and they say they want to start over, you at least want to know what they’re going to get started over with.
Another provision of interest to you in the NDAA where there’s a mismatch between the House and Senate is on Space Corps. Advocates say the satellites that make up the American military’s nervous system face a real threat from Russia and China, that only a new service apart from the Air Force can close the gap. Why don’t you agree?
The proponents for Space Corps have accurately scoped the problem: our true dependence in space, our vulnerability in space, the bureaucratic difficulty we have in responding. The lead to “Shazam, we need Space Corps” should be following a significant amount of congressional work, hearings [and] structures. Currently, we don’t know what it costs. We don’t know what it would be, how it would be organizationally, what would be included [and] what would not be included. And we don’t know most importantly how a Space Corps would solve all these problems. When you take the same people, and assign them the same job, only you give them different titles; you haven’t necessarily improved the system.
Looking at defense budgeting, we’ve seen Pentagon leaders come to the Hill and say they want steady defense increases to preserve America’s military edge, much less achieve the build-up President Donald Trump has talked about. Is there a commitment by House leadership to increase defense budgets into the future?
The debate on the spending for 2018 was so important because the Trump administration low-balled funding for 2018 but promised Congress a significant increase in 2019. [Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis, President Trump, all looked to ’19 to be the time at which we would begin to see funding for modernization of our military, recapitalization, expansion of troop levels and a real plan to serve — to satisfy our readiness problem.
In order to ensure that 2019 number would accomplish its goal, we needed to make certain that 2018 was enough of an increase or 2019 could be inconsequential at minimum. I think the debate that has happened in the House and the Senate on funding 2018 sets us up nicely for an increase in 2019. It’s going to require the administration really dedicate its resources to rebuilding the military. Mattis has made it clear he believes he has a promise from the administration that 2019 will be the year. So, we want to make 2018 as good as possible so that 2019 can be even better.
You’re positioned as a lead defense hawk, with letters in multiple years calling for an end to sequestration, or budget caps because DoD needs more resources. Describe the dynamics here. The push from Democrats for nondefense spending and from fiscal conservatives in your party against deficit spending?
One of the worst outcomes of the Budget Control Act was not just the effects of sequestration that caused us to do fictional budgeting for DoD and to use OCO, overseas contingency funds, to fund base requirements and to lower overall aggregate spending that was—that detrimentally impacted readiness—was that it forever tied on a ratio basis, domestic nonmilitary and military spending together. So, every time a budget goes over to the Senate, there is this leverage: hold-out of more defense spending and more non-defense spending as a roadblock to getting a budget done or to getting our defense bills done.
The schedule used to be that we take defense through because it was what everyone would agree upon. And then the other bills could be taken through as the debate ensued. Now those are a dead stop when they hit the Senate because the Senate, using the Budget Control Act, wants the leverage of holding up defense in order to ensure increases of spending elsewhere. That should not be the case. Every area should be based upon its needs and on what is required. In this instance, we have so underfunded defense that we really have a national crisis. Secretary Mattis himself has said, sequestration and CRs have done more damage to our national military than any adversary could.
Democrats and Republicans have had to find kind of common cause on these omnibus spending deals because there are fractures within the Republican Party. That’s why we’ve seen bipartisan coalitions come together and work out budget deals. Is this the roadmap for a budget deal this year that lifts caps for defense and nondefense?
So the issue is that it can’t get through the Senate without super majorities in order to lift the caps. And that is leverage in order to hold up defense, to cause other deficit spending elsewhere. I mean, there has to be a deal. We have to get our work done. And currently, our men and women in uniform are being held hostage.
Has the conversation changed given some of the Navy mishaps?
I don’t think we have déjà vu concerning budgeting process, DoD and sequestration because we have a new team. We now have a president that says, Remove sequestration from defense. We have a Secretary of Defense who — actually advocating for defense spending and not EPA spending. I hope I’m never in a situation again where I have to sit in a hearing in HASC and have a secretary of defense tell me that it’s important for me to fund the EPA when he should be concerned about his department and what’s happening to men and women in uniform.
The new team has changed the whole dynamic. Another aspect that has been important. When sequestration went into effect, the Armed Services Committee members became convinced that we had to turn outward from our committee and to begin advocating with our fellow members of Congress. We’re beyond the period where people just looked to members of the Armed Services Committee and said, “Well, you get the classified briefings. You know. You’re the experts. We’re going to defer to you.” We now have to take the message to other members. DOD has fought. Secretary Mattis has been up here and has done classified briefings of the full House on a regular basis. Opens every one by saying, “I need sequestration removed” and “Please don’t do a CR. You’re damaging the military.”
That was a criticism of the Obama administration and you’re drawing that contrast?
Right. And [Obama administration Defense] Secretary [Ash] Carter would not advocate outside of the Armed Services Committee. He kept it in front of us. He advocated funding to the EPA and then took the message nowhere of, “Repeal sequestration” and “We have a readiness problem.” That’s not true with Secretary Mattis. He is beating the drums. He is talking to everyone he can, including leadership, members of the Budget Committee, members of Appropriations and giving them real information about, “We have ships that are colliding. We have helicopters that are coming out of the sky. We have service members who are not getting the training they need; pilots that aren’t flying.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.