McCAIN ON A TEAR: Sen. John McCain, battling brain cancer at age 81, was back in full prosecutorial form yesterday as he ranted about the continued decline of U.S. combat readiness over the past several years. “In that time, we've seen military readiness decline to nearly unprecedented levels, a crisis in pilot and aircraft maintenance personnel retention, numerous cases of senior officer misconduct,” McCain said at a hearing for Pentagon nominees. “The military readiness crisis has impacted every service from ship collisions, aircraft crashes and vehicle accidents to personnel shortages in critical roles, like aviation and cybersecurity,” McCain said. “And by the way, the Congress is also complicit in this almost criminal behavior.”
ZEROING IN ON THE PILOT SHORTAGE: McCain, a former naval aviator, berated the Pentagon for policies he said are worsening the shortage of combat pilots, now close to 2,000 in the Air Force. A big problem is not pilot pay, but all the bureaucratic hoops pilots must go through that have nothing to do with flying, such as numerous staff assignments, relocating every two to three years, and required military education courses, he said. The “outdated requirements” are mandated by the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, or DOPMA, which McCain called “an overly rigid system that is increasingly unable to cope with the demands of the modern force.” It’s driving pilots away, he argues. “All of this is done to turn every officer into the military's next general or admiral,” McCain said. “Well, not every officer wants or needs to be a general officer.”
“Their complaint isn't money. They want to fly airplanes, and that's what they're not able to do. Sixty percent of our FA teams aren't flying. They're flying less hours per month than Russian and Chinese pilots are,” McCain said. “We're in a bidding war with the civilian airliners. You're not going to win it. The way you're going to win it is for them to be proud to wear the uniform of the military.”
IT’S PERSONAL: McCain says he met last week with families of some of the 10 sailors who died on the USS John S. McCain, the Aegis destroyer named for his father and grandfather. A Navy investigation blamed the ship’s collision with a commercial vessel on poor seamanship by commanders and crew that were overworked and undertrained. “I can tell you that they believe that their young people were not provided with what they needed to effectively operate in defense of this country,” McCain said. “For example, hundred-hour work weeks. Do you know anybody that works a hundred hour work week continuously … efficiently?
“I don't like looking at those mothers whose children's deaths could have been prevented. This is a serious issue, and I'd say it's pretty obvious, according to the chief of naval operations that it could have been prevented.”
HOUSE EASILY PASSES NDAA: The $700 billion National Defense Authorization Act is now headed to the Senate. The House overwhelmingly approved the must-pass annual policy bill in a 356-70 vote despite warnings from some Democrats that the $634.2 billion in base defense spending cannot be realized unless Congress acts to lift a $549 billion budget cap for 2018. “The increased spending included in this bill are hollow numbers and we are failing to deliver a credible or sensible long-term plan to the Defense Department,” said Rep. Niki Tsongas, the ranking member on the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee.
The NDAA bill authorizes more hardware and troops than requested by Trump, with 90 Lockheed Martin F-35 joint strike fighters, 24 Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets and 14 new Navy ships. That includes three littoral combat ships built by Lockheed Martin and Austal USA. “I’m proud to say this bill sends the signal to our Navy, the industrial base and our adversaries that a 355-ship Navy is not just a theoretical idea but rather an achievable reality,” said Rep. Rob Wittman, the chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee who has been pushing to increase the size of the current 278-ship fleet.
The NDAA must now be taken up by the Senate, where it is also expected to pass and be sent to President Trump for his signature, even though there is still no clear plan in Congress on how to fund the annual bill. Lawmakers in both chambers have rallied around the cap-busting authorization and say it's needed to rebuild a military that is overburdened and underfunded. Trump himself has touted the $700 billion goal in speeches on several occasions. “It is morally wrong to send men and women out on missions with our military for which they are not fully supported, fully trained, equipped with the best equipment our country can provide,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, the House Armed Services chairman. “It’s wrong for us to do it and that’s exactly what’s been happening.”
Good Wednesday morning and welcome to Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense, compiled by Washington Examiner National Security Senior Writer Jamie McIntyre (@jamiejmcintyre), National Security Writer Travis J. Tritten (@travis_tritten) and Senior Editor David Brown (@dave_brown24). Email us here for tips, suggestions, calendar items and anything else. If a friend sent this to you and you’d like to sign up, click here. If signing up doesn’t work, shoot us an email and we’ll add you to our list. And be sure to follow us on Twitter @dailyondefense.
HAPPENING TODAY: At noon, the Senate will vote on confirming Mark Esper to be the next Army secretary.
McCAIN THREATENS NEW HOLD ON NOMINEES: Irate over a report in USA Today, which said recruits with a history of self-mutilation and other mental health issues can now seek waivers under a new Army policy, McCain raised the possibility of holding up nominees or even proposing a new law blocking the waivers. “We should have been told about this before it showed up in a USA Today article,” McCain said. “To just announce that we’re changing the criteria for requiring people to serve in military is not something that this committee finds acceptable. So, we may have to act legislatively to prevent you from doing it.” The pushback came during an Armed Services confirmation hearing with Anthony Kurta who is nominated to be principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness; James McPherson to be Army general counsel; and Gregory Maggs to be a judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
WHAT USA TODAY REPORTED: McCain read from the newspaper account during questioning of McPherson, and asked “Are we seeing the same movie over and over again?”
Here are the nut graphs from USA Today’s report: “People with a history of ‘self-mutilation,’ bipolar disorder, depression and drug and alcohol abuse can now seek waivers to join the Army under an unannounced policy enacted in August, according to documents obtained by USA TODAY.
“The decision to open Army recruiting to those with mental health conditions comes as the service faces the challenging goal of recruiting 80,000 new soldiers through September 2018. To meet last year's goal of 69,000, the Army accepted more recruits who fared poorly on aptitude tests, increased the number of waivers granted for marijuana use and offered hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses.”
ARMY CRIES FOUL: Later in the day the Army pushed back against the USA Today account, calling it “inaccurate, unfair,” and alleging it “substantially misinterpreted” a simple administrative change. “Recent reports that the Army has changed medical entrance standards for those with mental health issues are inaccurate,” said a statement from Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands. “The Army has made no such policy change and follows the accession standards prescribed by the Department of Defense.”
The Army said the only change was in delegating some authorities for granting waivers to the specific commands involved, such as Army Recruiting Command, or State Adjutant General, in the case of the National Guard. “Unfortunately, this simple, administrative change has been substantially misinterpreted,” Seamands said, “It's also important to note that the conditions themselves have been unfairly characterized.
“For example, a child who received behavioral counseling at age 10 would be forever banned from military service were it not for the ability to make a waiver request,” Seamands said. “We're not prepared to close the door on such individuals who are otherwise medically, mentally and physically qualified for military service.”
NOMINEES MOVING QUICKLY, FOR NOW: McCain had only just agreed to restart hearings on nominees late last month after another dispute with the Pentagon over sharing information on operations around the world. Since then, Armed Services has been considering nominees at a rapid clip with hearings for 15, and it voted Tuesday to move three more to the Senate floor: Robert McMahon to be assistant secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness; R.D. James to be assistant secretary of the Army for civil works; Bruce Jette to be assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology; and Shon Manasco to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs.
TRANSGENDER SERVICE: During yesterday’s SASC hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal pressed Pentagon nominees McPherson and Kurta on transgender military service, which Trump in August ordered to end. “Do you agree with, I know, a number of members on this committee including myself, that the military and our country are made stronger with our ability to draw all individuals who are able to meet rigorous requirements that our armed services demand, requirements for training, for deploying, for fighting, for defending our country without any discrimination?” McPherson said he agreed on that for the Army. “We are a standards-based organization and anyone who meets those standards, mentally, physically, should be able to serve their country while wearing the uniform,” he said. Kurta answered simply, “Senator, I agree.”
TRANSGENDER SURGERY: The Pentagon confirmed an active-duty service member received a sex reassignment surgery on Tuesday following a report by NBC News. “Because this service member had already begun a sex-reassignment course of treatment, and the treating doctor deemed this surgery medically necessary, a waiver was approved by the director of the Defense Health Agency,” Dana White, the Pentagon chief spokesperson, said in a statement. The procedure, which was done in a private hospital, will be covered by the military as it awaits the new transgender service policy ordered by Trump. The president has given Defense Secretary Jim Mattis a March deadline to eliminate coverage of sex- and gender-reassignment surgeries as part of the effort to roll back the Obama administration policy of open transgender service. Mattis issued interim Pentagon guidance that the status quo will remain in place until the new policy is finalized next year.
REFUSING TO START WORLD WAR III: U.S. military officers won’t “blindly” follow a hypothetical presidential order to launch a nuclear strike, if that order is determined to be illegal, a former top nuclear commander testified before Congress yesterday. “It's important to remember that the United States military doesn't blindly follow orders,” said retired Gen. Robert Kehler, who led U.S. Strategic Command from 2011 to 2013, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “A presidential order to employ U.S. nuclear weapons must be legal. The basic legal principles of military necessity, distinction, and proportionality apply to nuclear weapons, just as they do to every other weapon,” he said.
Kehler, whose duties at the Nebraska-based Strategic Command rendered him directly responsible for American nuclear forces, appeared as part of a panel of witnesses testifying about the scope and limits of presidential authority over nuclear weapons. The committee convened the hearing over concerns over whether Trump might order such an attack on North Korea without congressional approval, citing some of the president’s recent rhetoric, such as his threat that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury, like the world has never seen.”
“We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic, that he might order a nuclear weapon strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests,” Sen. Chris Murphy said. “Many Americans share my fear that the president's bombastic words could turn into nuclear reality,” said Sen. Ed Markey.
Other witnesses testified that the process for ordering a nuclear strike is so streamlined there would be no time for discussion about whether the president’s order was legal. “It would be too late,” said Bruce Blair, a former nuclear missile launch officer and a co-founder of Global Zero, which advocates for elimination of nuclear weapons.
The hearing was called by Republicans, but Democrats have introduced legislation to limit the president’s authority launch a first strike, absent an imminent threat. Some members cautioned that tying the president’s hands could throw off the delicate calculation of deterrence. “We cannot have a bunch of bunker lawyers that basically — or activists, up and down the chain, who decide that they're going to disobey any order that they disagree with,” said Sen. Marco Rubio.
MORE ISIS LEADERS KILLED: Four senior Islamic State leaders have been killed due to coalition airstrikes over the past three weeks, the Pentagon announced yesterday. The four targets were Yusuf Demir, an ISIS media official, Omer Demir, an external operations coordinator, Abu Yazin, an senior leader and a weapons facilitator, and Abdellah Hajjiaou, an external operations plotter.
"The removal of these key terrorists disrupts ISIS' weapons engineering activities and their ability to recruit and train terrorists," said a news release from Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. "It also reduces their ability to plan and conduct terrorist attacks, both within Syria and Iraq and abroad."
BOGUS RUSSIAN CLAIM: The Russian Defense Ministry on Tuesday tweeted out what it called "irrefutable evidence" that the U.S. is supporting the Islamic State, including screenshots showing the U.S. providing aerial cover.
The accusation, via the official @mod_russia account, included what appeared to be overhead thermal imagery purportedly showing an ISIS convoy on Nov. 9 leaving Abu Kamal in Syria for the Iraq border, with air cover provided by the U.S. It didn't take long for eagle-eyed Twitter users to realize it wasn't an ISIS convoy, but actually a screenshot from the mobile phone game "AC-130 Gunship Simulator." You can see the photos here, which the Russian MoD has since taken down.
ZING! A spokesman for the coalition to defeat the Islamic State fired back on the accusations during a briefing with reporters later in the day. "I would say the Russian Ministry of Defense statements are about as accurate as their air campaign," Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters. "And I think that is a reason for them to start coming out with their latest barrage of lies."
Dillon told reporters that Russia was making the accusations in order to cover for its own battlefield mistakes in Syria. "They are currently having some setbacks, particularly with the civilian casualty allegations of the 50 who were reportedly killed by their strikes in Aleppo," Dillon said. "You've got what happens with their partners in the Syrian regime in Abu Kamal saying that they liberated the city, and they're not in the city, they're still fighting there and had some setbacks in Deir ez-Zor recently."
UNIMPRESSED WITH STATE: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s plan to reform and reorganize the State Department is not going well, according to a pair of leading senators. State Department officials gave a “very unsatisfactory” update to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a staff meeting last week, Chairman Sen. Bob Corker said during a Tuesday hearing.
Those conversations stoked bipartisan concern about the department’s leadership on an issue that Tillerson has identified as one of his top priorities. “I don't think they're anywhere close to having a plan to present relative to the reforms that they want to make there,” Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said Tuesday.
AP: Analysis: Progress by China envoy in N. Korea won’t be easy
Wall Street Journal: U.S. fight against Islamist terror moves to airwaves
Stars and Stripes: No leadership shake-up so far in wake of Niger ambush
War on the Rocks: The courage to end generational wars
Defense News: Raytheon: Saudi-based Patriots intercepted over 100 tactical ballistic missiles since 2015
USNI News: Navy: ‘No decisions have been made’ in reactivating Perry frigates
USA Today: Trump hails 'tremendously successful' Asia trip; analysts not so sure
Daily Beast: There’s no real check on Trump’s power to end the world
New York Times: U.S. hires company with K.G.B. link to guard Moscow embassy
Stars and Stripes: Outrage sparked after airman takes knee; Air Force says he felt faint
Foreign Policy: Two unexpected ways in which mercenaries affected ancient battles
Defense One: Can Russia help the U.S. as much as Trump says it can?
WEDNESDAY | NOV. 15
7:30 a.m. 300 1st St. SE. Breakfast series with Gen. Darren McDew, commander of U.S. Transportation Command. mitchellaerospacepower.org
8 a.m. 2401 M St. NW. Defense Writers Group breakfast with acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy. centermediasecurity.org
8 a.m. 201 Waterfront St. Logistics Officer Association Symposium 2017. logisticsymposium.org
8 a.m. 45425 Holiday Dr. Navy League board of directors meeting. navyleague.org
9 a.m. 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Kleptocratic regimes and national security: A pervasive threat and how it can be neutralized. Hudson.org
10 a.m. National Harbor, Maryland. Air Force Gen. Darren McDew, commander, U.S. Transportation Command, speaks at the Logistics Officer Association Symposium 2017, Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.
10 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Prospects and challenges of building the 350-ship Navy with three former service secretaries. csis.org
10 a.m. Rayburn 2172. Hearing to mark up various bills. foreignaffairs.house.gov
2 p.m. Dirksen 419. Attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba: Response and oversight. foreign.senate.gov
4 p.m. 1030 15th St. NW. Book discussion of “Russia's Border Wars and Frozen Conflicts.” atlanticcouncil.org
THURSDAY | NOV. 16
8 a.m. 201 Waterfront St. Logistics Officer Association Symposium 2017. logisticsymposium.org
8:30 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Sixth Annual Transatlantic Forum on Russia. csis.org
9 a.m. 1030 15th St. NW. Nuclear strategy and security in the second nuclear age conference. atlanticcouncil.org
9:30 a.m. 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Strengthening military readiness: The role of military families in 21st century defense with Anthony Kurta, performing the duties of under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness. brookings.edu
10 a.m. Dirksen G-50. Nomination hearing for John C. Rood to be under secretary of defense for policy and Randall G. Schriver to be assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs. armed-services.senate.gov
10 a.m. Senate Visitor Center 217. Closed hearing on new counter-terrorism guidance with Maj. Gen. Albert M. Elton II, Joint Staff deputy director for special operations and counterterrorism. foreign.senate.gov
10:15 a.m. Rayburn 2168. F-35 joint strike fighter cockpit demonstrator flights with a discussion of the Lockheed Martin weapons program and its capabilities. f35.com
5 p.m. 1957 E St. NW. Opportunities and challenges of a complex future: NATO ACT report launch with Gen. Denis Mercier, NATO supreme allied commander for transformation. atlanticcouncil.org
FRIDAY | NOV. 17
8 a.m. 201 Waterfront St. Logistics Officer Association Symposium 2017 with a keynote speech by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. logisticsymposium.org
8 a.m. 3301 Massachusetts Ave. NW. U.S.-Finland Defense and Security Industry Seminar. ndia.org
3 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. A book talk with author Serhii Plokhy about “Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation.” csis.org
MONDAY | NOV. 20
12 p.m. 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Is Lebanon Saudi Arabia's new zone of confrontation with Iran? hudson.org
TUESDAY | NOV. 21
2:30 p.m. 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Kings and presidents: Whither the special relationship with Saudi Arabia? brookings.edu