The nominee for the number-two civilian job in the Pentagon told a Senate panel on Tuesday the Navy’s proposed long-term shipbuilding plan would “require future analysis to validate the numbers.”
Before that work could kick-off, Kathleen Hicks said during her confirmation hearing to serve as deputy defense secretary that she would want to have a Navy civilian leadership team in place.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who asked the question during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, pointed out that the long-delayed Fiscal Year 2021 plan calls for 82 additional manned ships to be built between 2022 and 2026, while the current budget would add 44 over five years. The plan’s estimated price tag for the 82 warships would be $147 billion. The current budget forecast for the 44 would be $102 billion.
Oversight committees in both the House and Senate complained last year that then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s decision to hold back the release of the plan while Congress crafted the Navy’s budget for the coming year complicated their efforts. The delay also threw into question long-range spending forecasts for all the services.
When the plan was released, Russell Vought, the Trump administration’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a statement, “our updated 30-year shipbuilding plan is a credible, affordable roadmap for achieving maritime supremacy – all while tightening our belts – and sending a strong message to our adversaries like China.”
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy and the change in the administration following the November election signaled that defense spending would flatten or decline, outgoing SASC chairman Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in his opening remarks Tuesday.
Controlling the pandemic and spurring the economy into recovery are the highest priorities of the Biden administration, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said recently.
The coming fiscal years will be the first without the restraint of the Budget Control Act on defense and domestic spending. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in introducing Hicks to the committee, praised her “mastery of black arts in the Pentagon” in working through the first years of sequestration when she served as the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration.
Like her prospective boss, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, recently told the committee, Hicks said “China is the pacing challenge of our time.” Acknowledging Beijing’s growing number of warships, advances in ballistic and cruise missiles, and other technologies like hypersonics and artificial intelligence, Hicks said “we must modernize” the services.
In follow-up questions, Hicks said modernization includes the nuclear triad, its command-and-control systems and the industrial base as a top priority.
“The triad has served us very well,” she said.
If confirmed, she pledged support for the Pacific Defense Initiative, created in the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to reinforce allies and partners in similar ways to what is being done to counter Russia in Europe.
Using the Trump shipbuilding plan as one way to address the Chinese challenge, she found some “operational themes I’m interested in.” Among those she mentioned were autonomy, dispersal of forces and “growing the number of small surface combatants.” In answering other senators’ questions on specific systems and technologies that need to be modernized, she cited quantum computing, hypersonic missiles and “challenges to the U.S. in the undersea domain.”
The goal is for the United States to “have a qualitative advantage over adversaries,” she said.
She said she wanted to cut the unnecessary layers of regulatory paperwork to entice smaller, more innovative tech companies to approach the Pentagon with their ideas. For industry, Hicks said the department needs to involve it in the design phase and not present a “fait accompli” on what the Pentagon wants in a system without outside comment. The Navy has adopted a similar philosophy in how it developed the requirements for the Constellation-class frigate and looking to apply it to future shipbuilding programs.
On the personnel side, at least two senators on the committee – Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Angus King (I-Maine) – said they found the report on violence, sexual assault, harassment and retaliation against whistleblowers at Fort Hood, Texas, so alarming they now favored removing the chain of command from these cases.
As SECDEF Austin testified, Hicks said, “the problem doesn’t appear to be getting any better.” She said she believed prosecution and accountability, including removing commanders from these cases, need to be on the table.
In the past, the panel split three ways on command involvement in these cases. King and Kaine, who were leaders of the middle group calling for more reforms but keeping the chain of command involved, said during the hearing that the earlier efforts have not worked.
The Senate is expected to confirm Hicks’ nomination. Before her nomination, she was a senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Hicks is also a member of the board of the U.S. Naval Institute.