Necessary Questions: What Should Be Addressed at the SoD Hearings (but Won't)

Ashton Carter is the Obama Administration nominee for Secretary of Defense to replace the incumbent Chuck Hagel this year. If confirmed, Carter will be the fourth SoD to serve in the Obama administration, his confirmation dependent on hearings to be held in early February. When Hagel underwent confirmation hearings in 2013, the world was facing multiple crises though today the global situation is to put it bluntly, far worse. If the Hagel confirmation hearings proved anything, it showed that existing, real defense and security concerns are largely ignored in favor of political pandering on the part of the Senate Armed Services committee. Given the number and severity of threats facing the U.S. today, I sincerely hope the range of questions asked will be different from 2013 though I’m not optimistic. With that said, I present the topics I believe should be addressed at the hearings but which most likely won’t be in any meaningful way.

Today Russia under President Vladimir Putin is waging a war in eastern Ukraine where Russian forces are not only supporting pro-Russian rebel groups but are also engaged in actual battle with Ukrainian forces. With Senator McCain as chairman of the committee along with Senators such as Inhofe and Nelson, I presume any questions on the topic will most likely concern the idea of arming Ukrainian forces. While I am concerned about this, I am just as concerned about how the U.S. is ready to counter Putin if he decides to make moves in the Baltics, destabilize Moldova, or try to increase influence in Central Asia. What are we and should be doing with NATO and other states that are fearful of Russian encroachment? Is the U.S. ready to honor treaty commitments if Russia makes moves on NATO members; a scenario that doesn't seem all that far-fetched in light of recent Russian moves.

Despite the pivot of the Obama administration towards Asia, remarkably little has been done. Tensions between China and American allies such as Japan and the Philippines are increasing while other regional countries such as Vietnam are looking for expanded U.S. involvement. While the possibility for conflict ranging from accidental to large-scale is real, is the U.S. ready? Are we doing enough to address the rapid build-up of the Chinese military which is now approaching us in qualitative levels? Add to this the existence of North Korea, a nuclear-armed state whose leadership has repeatedly in the past acted in an irrational manner. In 2013 the primary concern was the possibility of a future, nuclear-armed Iran; forget that, North Korea has nuclear weapons and has shown a proclivity to act irrationally dangerous. Are we prepared?

Then there is the Middle East which is sure to gain the majority of attention, somewhat deservedly. Of course there will be discussion of Israel and it relating to everything else, Iran and the possibility of future nuclear weapons, and the Syrian civil war but here are those I critically want to hear.

Supplanting al Qaeda as the most dangerous Islamic fundamentalist group in the world today, ISIS is rampaging through the Middle East with a level of brutality that is shocking to the civilized world. For several months, the U.S. along with coalition partners are engaged in a bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. I would ask what strategy should we take to counter it since by all accounts, our current offensive (which doesn't even factor into the evening news) has for the most part been less than spectacular. Furthermore the Iraqi army which we expended and continue to, large sums of money on and provide with training, has so far failed to present itself as a credible deterrence to ISIS. What is our future plan for military relations with Iraq? Where are we in supporting moderate Syrian rebels against ISIS?

Talk of Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program will dominate these hearings as they did in 2013 but more importantly should be discussed Iran's role in the region. Iran has gained considerable influence outside of its borders over the past two years in Syria, Iraq, and most recently in Yemen, influence which at the moment makes any discussion of nuclear weapons seem out of place. For over two decades, U.S. and Israeli "experts/politicians" have railed about the near introduction of Iranian nuclear weapons while minimizing other dangerous activities which are real. The expansion of Iranian influence is one of them, unfortunately, I expect the confirmation hearing to stay solely-focused on the "impending" Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Much less talked about in the news today is the situation of the Kurds. We hear about Iraq, ISIS, Syria, and Turkey but little about the Kurds, a people that has been striving for the creation of its own state for decades. What is to be made of their recent moves towards establishing a state free from the influence of the Iraqi government in Baghdad? As allies, how will the U.S. respond especially considering the role of Turkey as a NATO member (in itself worthy of discussion) and their relations with the Kurds, and how will we handle Kurdish moves towards independence?

Apart from foreign security concerns, U.S. weaponry acquisition must be addressed. The F35 fighter is behind schedule, and over-budget yet it is to replace the bulk of the combat aircraft flown by the various branches of the U.S. military. There is a widespread belief that the Chinese have obtained blueprints of it while its combat capabilities are being outmatched by aircraft from competitor nations. Will the underperformance of the F35 program be addressed or will it be sidelined? Additionally there is the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) that like the F35 is over budget, behind schedule. Add to that woefully underarmed and ill-suited for the roles it is expected to perform. Currently the primary future weapons systems the U.S. intends to field have performed less than satisfactorily and in the process, the most advanced military in the world is falling behind in several key areas. How will this be addressed?

The confirmation hearings for SoD are not meant to be an all-encompassing review of security challenges facing the U.S. or an outlook of the future fighting potential of our armed forces. What they are meant to show is that the SoD nominee is aware of the issues and to evaluate the opinions of the nominee on them. In 2013 during the Hagel hearings, Israel and Iran dominated by an incredible margin. To put in perspective, Israel and Iran were mentioned 178 and 169 times respectively. The next nation to receive so many mentions was Vietnam at 41 while countries where the U.S. was actively involved, Afghanistan and Iraq received a paltry 38 and 30 mentions respectively each. The main focus in 2013 was the potential for a nuclear-armed Iran and Hagel's opinions and focus on Israel which many deemed were insufficient. Real existing security issues to the U.S. were sidelined while topics such as PTSD, sexual assault, and suicide, things which take a toll daily on the men and women serving this country were marginalized.

I sincerely hope that the SoD hearings this year have a greater focus on real national security threats facing the U.S. such as the multitude of existing threats which aren't being acknowledged. Unfortunately, the impact of special interest and lobbying groups will prevent this from occurring. One can hope that sanity prevails though.

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