Rep. Vicky Hartzler is among the rising defense hawk voices in the House who have been repeating a dire warning: The U.S. military is stretched dangerously thin.
The message from Hartzler, a House Armed Services subcommittee chairwoman, and other members of the panel was elevated this month by Speaker Paul Ryan, who said the U.S. has “pushed our military past the breaking point.”
With the backing of leadership, Hartzler and Armed Services now have the task of shepherding the billions of dollars in new defense spending needed for troops and hardware through a divided and gridlocked Congress.
The conservative Republican congresswoman, who lives on a farm in her Missouri district, was also thrust into the international spotlight last year when she spearheaded an effort to block transgender troops from serving in the military. Her proposal was rejected in the House, but the following month, President Trump surprised many by announcing a ban.
She sat down with the Washington Examiner this month to talk about the military, defense funding, international threats, and her thoughts on transgender service.
Washington Examiner: Speaker Ryan said recently our military is breaking. When you look out at the military, what do you see?
Hartzler: I see a military that is very stressed and whose readiness has been degraded such that it is costing lives. We’ve got to fix it. There are more threats facing us now as a nation than any time since World War II, and yet, we have cut the military budget significantly under the past administration. This has to be reversed. Some of the stats that concern me, and [Ryan] may have cited some of the same ones as well: We have the smallest Army since before World War II, we have the smallest Navy, and we have the smallest Air Force. We’ve been cutting our troops by over 120,000 as far as Army active-duty, Reserve and Guard. We have actually less than 50 percent of the Navy aircraft that can fly. It’s closer to around 75 percent of Marine aircraft that can’t. We only have five of 58 [Army] brigade combat teams that can fight tonight if called upon.
I had the chance at the end of September to stand in the room where seven sailors perished aboard the USS Fitzgerald as part of a readiness subcommittee trip over to Japan, South Korea, Guam, and Hawaii. That was just heart-wrenching, especially when you found out that that accident was due to training issues and leadership issues. It wasn’t at the hands of a foreign adversary. We owe it to our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and their parents and their spouses and everyone else to give them the resources they need to fight and win and come back safely.
Washington Examiner: And yet, Congress is more than three months overdue in passing an annual defense spending bill. How did we get here?
Hartzler: Unfortunately, we have those here in D.C. who want to use the military as a hostage in order to extract more money for their pet projects, and I think it is deplorable. We’re at this state right now, even though we have the White House, the Senate, and the House, because of the Senate’s rules and the Republicans on the Senate side’s unwillingness to change them and go by majority rules. That gives the Senate Democratic leadership the leverage to say, "We are not going to support passing the funding needed for the troops unless you give us more money for our projects," and it is wrong. It is harming our national security.
Washington Examiner: The passage of the $700 billion National Defense Authorization Act late last year seemed to send a message about where Congress stands. Do you see a growing consensus among fellow House members about the need for higher defense spending?
Hartzler: Those of us on [House Armed Services] have seen this for years now, and our conviction is becoming even more strengthened with the 80 training deaths [last] year compared to the 20 combat deaths. This is a huge issue that has to be resolved sooner rather than later. The speaker and some of our leadership here in the House have also, I think, realized the significance of this and started to speak out more on it. That is very helpful. So, I do think there is a growing awareness and intensity of purpose of getting this done in the House. I hope the Senate would also see this. Part of it is what is happening on the world stage, too, when you have a leader of a country [North Korea] with growing nuclear capability that says my goal is to send an intercontinental ballistic missile to the United States and to detonate it and to kill your citizens. If that isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.
Washington Examiner: The Pentagon has talked about ramping up its effort to rebuild the military in 2019 and 2020, but can it get the kind of money it needs from Congress?
Hartzler: We didn’t get to this stage overnight, and it is going to take a long time to recover as well. You can’t just in one year make up for the training shortfalls that have been happening for years. You can’t build enough planes in one year to replace the ones that are sitting in the depot without parts. So, it is going to take a while. It is going to take a concerted, long-term commitment to fixing this. That is what we’ve got to have to be ready in the future. We just hope that, in the meantime, we don’t need a full-scale use of our resources.
Washington Examiner: If there is a bigger budget, where do you think the money should go first?
Hartzler: It needs to go to training and modernization. Certainly, when you have 50 percent of the Navy aircraft that can’t fly — that’s why we put in the NDAA 20 more F-18s. But we could certainly increase that. We don’t have enough bombs now. We have got to make a priority of getting that production ramped up. We don’t have enough [missile] defense interceptors to meet a threat from North Korea, and I know they are ramping up. We’ve got to as quickly as possible, in the near term, invest our money in bombs, in the defense systems, and the aircraft. But then also in the training side so we don’t have these accidents. We can get more brigade combat teams that are capable of fighting tonight and sailors who are competent in sailing our ships in any environment. Those are the two areas that I think need to be focused on, your modernization and your readiness and training.
Washington Examiner: Your district is home to Whiteman Air Force Base, the only B-2 Spirit stealth bomber base in the country. How is the B-2 fleet doing amid all the wider readiness issues?
Hartzler: It is very concerning. It is an example of a new program where they needed and originally requested a lot more bombers and then ended up only making 21 of them. Then, we lost one in Guam, so now we only have 20. As we look to the B-21 [Raider stealth heavy bomber], we need to make sure we don’t make that same mistake and produce the number of them that we need. Parts and sustainment issues are a reality for all aircraft, but when we only have 20 it does limit the capability to meet a threat. Currently, the bomber is the only aircraft that can go into a contested area, and in a contingency, we may need more of those. That is why I’m supportive and doing everything I can to make sure we get the B-21 on production, on time, and that we end up producing enough of them that in the future we will have what we need.
Washington Examiner: Obviously, you’re a supporter of the B-21 Raider, which is in development by the Air Force and could go into service in the coming decade. A lot of the program is secretive. What can you tell us about its status and progress?
Hartzler: I’m encouraged by what I’ve heard so far about the production process. I think they have taken a lot of the lessons learned from the B-2. Of course, Northrop Grumman is the same contractor, and so they are able to incorporate a lot of those lessons learned and improvements made to the B-2 over time into the new aircraft. I believe they are on schedule, and it is moving forward.
Washington Examiner: Such bombers could be used to hit an adversary like North Korea. There has been talk, reportedly inside the White House as well, about a limited military strike on the regime. What do you think about that option?
Hartzler: There are no good options with a North Korea contingency. But all of them need to be looked at. Of course, the concern is any preemptive strike could trigger a cataclysmic response from Kim Jong Un that could kill millions of people. When you look at the geographic challenges, they are very real. I was just there in September, and you have 30 miles from Seoul to the [demilitarized] zone. You have the North Korean forces with all of their rockets aimed right at Seoul and that very close proximity, and many of our service members and their families right there on the South Korean peninsula. It is very concerning, yet we have got to have a strong deterrent that is realistic and believable to keep him checked. Also, we need to continue to strengthen and work with our allies, [such as] joint exercises with Japan and South Korea. But also put pressure on China to fulfill its promises and cut off the economic engine that is driving Kim Jong Un’s production. We hope that those will be effective, and we won’t have to go to war.
Washington Examiner: President Trump has exchanged harsh words with Kim Jong Un, and there’s been a lot of debate about the administration’s approach to the regime. How well are we doing as far as dealing with the North Korea threat?
Hartzler: I think he has taken important actions to work with our allies in an open way, to have these exercises there, to be bold, and to be strong. I think a bully is more responsive to strength than to acquiescence. The pressure the president has put on China is the right course.
Washington Examiner: What did you think about South Korea and the North agreeing to march together and have a joint team at the Olympics?
Hartzler: I think it’s good. When I was in the DMZ zone, I went into the room that is set up so they can have those mutual discussions with a table halfway between the two countries and the phone connections. It was interesting to hear that there have been multiple meetings over the years. It may just be over some simple things or all the way to more serious discussions, but that is what it is there for. I was encouraged to see it being used again. When I was there, it had been months or even years since North Korea had answered the phone or agreed to have any discussions. Maybe this is just the start of more discussions saying, "Hey, maybe we can work together instead of being enemies."
Washington Examiner: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has talked about keeping a U.S. military presence in Syria indefinitely. Should troops stay, and what should our commitment to that region be after ISIS is defeated militarily?
Hartzler: That is a tough issue with no easy answers. I think a lot of it will depend on what Russia does. If they stay, what influence does it continue to have with the Assad regime? It is important that we learn the lessons of Iraq and don’t leave too soon, because that vacuum that was created a few years ago caused mayhem and enabled ISIS to be formed. We certainly don’t want that coming back. There is some wisdom in staying and monitoring and making sure that that [ISIS] foothold does not come again.
Washington Examiner: You were an outspoken opponent last year of allowing transgender troops in the military. Since then, it’s been quite a ride. The president surprised many by announcing a ban, but the courts have for now put a freeze on that, and transgender people are now applying to serve for the first time. What are you thinking as you see this unfold?
Hartzler: I appreciate President Trump taking the decisive action that he did to once again prioritize that the role and the mission of the Defense Department is to fight and win wars. We want to make sure every defense dollar is used to meet the threat. This change in policy that the Obama administration did potentially not only jeopardizes readiness, retention, and morale, but it can siphon much-needed funds away from modernization and training to go to new surgeries, which could be $1.35 billion over the next 10 years. There is a lot of airplanes and munitions that can be purchased with those defense dollars. I think that should be the right focus. So, I appreciate him taking those steps. It has been frustrating to have the courts block that, to not at least give an injunction until it works through the system, because they tend to do that for other things, and in this case command the Pentagon to move forward with this. I am pleased that they are continuing an independent study on the whole issue. I think Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions will continue to appeal this to the Supreme Court once they get that study in, and I’m hopeful they will overturn the [Obama administration] policy and allow the Pentagon to once again focus on meeting the threats.
Washington Examiner: Is the military becoming too politically correct, as President Trump has suggested?
Hartzler: I think the last president did decide to change the military from having the focus be on winning wars to having it meet some outside criteria that may be popular at the time but not necessarily be based on what the military really needs.
Washington Examiner: You are the chair of the House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations subcommittee. What do you see as the top role of that subcommittee? Can you give us any preview of your priorities this year?
Hartzler: We have a very important role, when you have a department that is invested with so much money, to make sure those dollars are going where they are needed. If there are concerns or changes, we have the opportunity to help as members of Congress to oversee those changes and make sure they are done according to how we prescribed them in the NDAA. Of course, when I came in, I took over an investigation started by my predecessor. We looked into the swap of the five Taliban soldiers for Sgt. [Bowe] Bergdahl and what that process looked like from a Pentagon standpoint. We’ve looked at examples of wasteful spending, and we spent several years on that in the past. I’m a huge advocate for more defense dollars. I just think it’s important that when we do hear of an allegation of money spent unwisely that we look into that and advocate that it be corrected. We had hearings into degradation of some of our nuclear facilities and some of the readiness concerns with that.
Looking forward to this year, we are going to be spending a lot of time focused on overseeing the transition of the background checks system from the Office of Personnel Management to the Department of Defense. That was part of the NDAA. Of course, there is a huge backlog in getting those security clearances, which is harmful to the Department of Defense as well as other federal agencies. Secretary [Jim] Mattis believes, and we believed as a committee, that the Department of Defense can do a better job — more thorough, quicker, be more responsive — getting the personnel [clearances] that we need done. That is going to take a couple of years. I don’t know if we’ll be involved that entire time, but certainly, this year that is going to be a focus, ensuring we get this system fixed.
Washington Examiner: Chairman Mac Thornberry recently told me that one of his priorities this year is “shining a light” on how the nature of warfare is changing. Looking into your crystal ball, what emerging defense or national security issues do you see on the horizon?
Hartzler: It is changing so rapidly. Our whole world is becoming more like Star Wars or the Jetsons. It is almost hard to keep up on. With the change in the type of weaponry, whether it be hypersonics, lasers, or artificial intelligence, this is the warfare of the future. Certainly, our adversaries are there or beyond us in their research and development of some of these capabilities. We have got to be just as prepared and have just as much foresight to move forward with new technologies, including drones.
Personally, I am working on legislation. We passed in the NDAA some capability for some military installations to have the authority to intercept a drone coming in or to gather data on where it came from. But I want to expand that and also give the authority at the border of our country, to give our border patrol the capability to take them down. Right now, it’s a very gray area, and there is a huge amount of drugs that are coming across our border with the use of drones. Plus, they are using drones to spot where the border patrol are and to be able to know where not to go. That’s another aspect of even warfare that we’ve got to address, from a terrorist or somebody else using a drone as well.