WASHINGTON – Defense secretary nominee Mark Esper warned at his confirmation hearing Tuesday that the "growing threats" posed by “great power competitors” China and Russia require the Pentagon to refocus toward high-intensity conflicts.
"This requires us to modernize our forces and capitalize on rapid technological advancements in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, directed energy and hypersonic," Esper, the Army secretary, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The former defense industry lobbyist and West Point graduate noted the need for "more robust cyber capabilities" as well as building – with congressional help – "the United States Space Force."
"At the same time, we must be prepared to respond to regional threats such as Iran and North Korea – all the while maintaining pressure on terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida," Esper said.
He said modernizing the Pentagon while balancing the threats is the department's central challenge and, if he is confirmed, his strategy would include upgrading weapons systems, strengthening alliances and improving performance and accountability at the Pentagon.
"No reform is too small," Esper said. "The bottom line is this: In an era of mounting fiscal challenges and competing demands, we must actively seek ways to free up time, money and manpower to invest back into our top priorities."
Esper, 55, holds a master's degree from Harvard University and a doctorate from George Washington University, and he spent more than 20 years in the Army, including 10 on active duty, before becoming a lobbyist, most recently for Raytheon.
With bipartisan support in the Senate, his bid to become the Pentagon chief is unlikely to stir much controversy. Esper was confirmed to his post as Army secretary by a vote of 89-6 in 2017. He faced some sharp prodding from senators, nonetheless.
Defense industry ties
In the most heated exchange at the hearing, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren ripped into Esper for refusing to promise he would recuse himself from any matters involving Raytheon, where he was the top lobbyist for seven years before becoming Army secretary.
Esper sold his stock in Raytheon in 2018 and recused himself from dealings at the Pentagon related to the company, but he declined at the hearing to say he would continue that blanket recusal if confirmed as secretary.
Esper, who’s entitled to at least $1 million in deferred compensation from the company starting in 2022, said in a recent memo that he may participate in Raytheon matters if an ethics official signs off and if the issue is “so important that it cannot be referred to another official.”
He “may be allowed to be present in meetings and receive information regarding Raytheon when necessary to remain informed about matters of critical importance to national security and Department of Defense programs and budget,” the memo said.
Esper told Warren he would follow all laws and rules and the advice of ethics officials when dealing with Raytheon issues, but he wouldn’t rule out involvement.
“This smacks of corruption, plain and simple,” snapped the Massachusetts senator, who is known for criticizing bankers and other corporate interests.
Esper recounted his commitment to public service and to “living an ethical life – that’s what drives me.”
"At the age of 18, I went to West Point, and I swore an oath to defend this Constitution, and I embraced a motto called duty and honor and country – and I've lived my life in accordance with those values ever since then," he said.
The exchange prompted rebukes of Warren and apologies to Esper from Republican senators on the committee. Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., called her comments “unfair,” while Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D, assured Esper: “Just know that by and large, we're not here to question your integrity.”
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said, “I guess she just needed a moment for her presidential campaign.”
Esper said when it comes to confronting Iran, "we need to get back on the diplomatic channel.”
The United States nearly bombed Iran last month after Tehran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone. President Donald Trump pulled back a planned attack at the last minute.
Tensions remain high. Iran started stockpiling and enriching uranium beyond limits set in the nuclear agreement reached with world powers in 2015. The United States blamed Tehran for sabotaging oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and Britain seized an Iranian tanker bound for Syria in the Mediterranean Sea, a move that angered Iran and led to a call for retaliation.
Esper said he believes "passive patrolling" in the Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf by the United States and allied forces could help deter more provocative actions from Tehran.
"At the same time, from the highest levels of government from the president himself, we said we will meet anytime, anywhere, without precondition to discuss issues with the Iranians to get us on the diplomatic path," he said.
On Friday, Ankara began taking delivery of a Russian missile system in defiance of warnings from the United States and others.
U.S. officials said the Russian S-400 system is not compatible with allied systems and could compromise security of U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets.
Senators from both parties blasted Turkey’s acceptance of the S-400 and said it is a “troubling signal of strategic alignment with (President Vladimir) Putin’s Russia and a threat to the F-35 program.”
In a joint statement, Inhofe, Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and the top Democrats on both committees, Sen. Jack Reed, R.I., and Bob Menendez, N.J., called on the Pentagon to terminate Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program.
The administration has not announced what it plans to do in response to Turkey’s actions.
Esper did not shed light on possible responses but said, "Their decision on the S-400 is the wrong one, and it's disappointing.”
"Turkey has been a long-standing NATO ally," he said. "(But) the view is, the policy that I've communicated ... is you can either have the S-400 or you can have the F-35. You cannot have both. Acquisition of the S-400 fundamentally undermines the capabilities of the F-35 and our ability to maintain that overmatch in the skies going forward."
Esper said he told NATO counterparts in Brussels last month that the United States' commitment to the NATO alliance and member countries' protection remains "ironclad and that we would continue to build in a number of areas to strengthen those partnerships and relationships."
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mark Esper: Trump's pick for defense secretary faces Senate hearing