Marine commandant-nominee Lt. Gen. Robert Neller spoke to the Senate Armed Services Committee about a range of topics during his nomination hearing on Thursday, from his views on operations in Iraq to readiness in the Pacific to the entrance of the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.
On F-35, Neller said he expects current commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford to make a decision on declaring initial operational capability (IOC) “soon.”
“Our plan was to declare IOC with [Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121] this month; that’s still the plan,” he said.
“They did an operational readiness evaluation, from what reports I have received – but I have not seen the (final) report – they did very well. That report is with the commandant, and he’s going to take a look at that and make a recommendation to the secretary as far as them being IOC. I’m hopeful that they passed, I think they passed. I think one of the concerns we have with any new system is the number of spare parts that are available to keep the aircraft at the requisite level of readiness.”
Neller said that, as an infantry officer, he cares about what the F-35 can do for ground troops that its predecessors couldn’t. He said it was great that the plane could access airspace that 4th-generation planes cannot, but what matters to him is the information the F-35 collects and will be able to disseminate to the pointy end of the spear.
“I think this airplane potentially, if it does what we believe it’s going to be able to do, is not just going to help us do what we do now better, it’s going to change how we do what we do,” he said.
The plane is set to make its first move overseas to Japan, as part of the United States’ Asia-Pacific rebalance. Neller said that after focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade, the forces are back in Okinawa, training and deploying regionally. Marines are deploying to Australia, more will move to Hawaii in the coming years and soon Marines will be stationed in Guam.
Neller said he was concerned there was not enough lift capability to move these Marines around for training and partner-building activities.
“You have to be able to move to where the training is, you have to move to other nations, you have to be able to get to Korea, you have to get to Thailand, you have to get to the Philippines – and to be able to do that you need sealift,” he said, saying that would be the hardest part of the rebalance. “The strategic lift is kind of the long pole potentially in that tent.”
Neller was also asked the same question asked of Dunford during the recent hearing on his nomination to be the next chairman of the joint chiefs of staff: what country represents the greatest threat to the United States? Like Dunford, he named Russia.
“If you’re asking me about a country, Senator … I would agree with Gen. Dunford that Russia has the most increasingly capable force, and their actions and the fact that they have strategic forces make them the greatest potential threat, although I don’t think they want to fight us,” he said.
“Right now I don’t think they want to kill Americans. I think violent extremists want to kill us, and their capability is not that great but their intent is high. And the fact that they have a message that seems to resonate around the world, not just in this country but in other countries in the Western world – they concern me equally.”
Neller served as deputy commanding general for operations of I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) from 2005 to 2007 in Iraq, so many senators asked him about the Iraqi people and the current fight against the Islamic State. Acknowledging that he hadn’t been to the country since he left in 2007, he replied that “we’re doing what we need to do right now: we’re training the Iraqis, we’re ensuring the provision of ammunition and equipment and supplies, we’re working in their operations centers, working with them, advising them. The only thing that we’re not doing is we’re not accompanying them, at least to the best of my knowledge.”
“They’re the ones who are going to have to do this,” he said of the Iraqis.
“They’re the ones who are going to have to restore their territory, and I believe based on what I’ve seen them do in the past that they have the capability to do that. Because we have to defeat ISIS, we have to get them to the point where they’re insignificant and that they’re just some people on the Internet saying a bunch of stuff but they don’t have any capability or anything to back it up. And right now that’s not where they are; they have land, they have terrain and they’re masquerading as a country.”
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), however, took issue with that response.
“I don’t think we’re ‘doing what we need to do,’ General,” he said at the end of the hearing. “If you think we’re doing what we need to do in Iraq and Syria, then we have a real strong and different view of the situation there.”
McCain said he would follow up with additional written questions because “I’m very disappointed in a number of your answers.”