Armed Services chairman warns: 'Our superiority is eroding'

Armed Services chairman warns: 'Our superiority is eroding'
© Greg Nash

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee pushed back Wednesday on President Obama's State of the Union address, saying it's not "hot air" to warn that America's enemies are growing stronger.

While Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryRight scrambles GOP budget strategy Defense hawks warn spending fix could hobble military DACA advocates see efforts gaining steam in the House MORE (R-Texas) said he agrees with the president’s assertion that the United States has the best military in the world, he warned others are catching up.

“Our superiority is eroding,” Thornberry said in a speech at the National Press Club.

“We’ve got lots of evidence and testimony to support that. I will tell you, the one comment that got groans across the chamber last night was when he said this notion that our enemies are not growing stronger is ‘hot air.’ And that provoked a lot of groans. I think that is empirically not true.”

“The world is more dangerous today than it was in 2009,” Thornberry said. “Despite the president’s claim last night, that is not just ‘hot air.’ That’s the facts. That’s reality.”

One aspect of strength is funding, Thornberry said. In that regard, he urged the administration to stick to the two-year budget agreement arrived at last fall. The agreement called for $573 billion in base defense funding for fiscal year 2017 and no less than $59 billion for a war fund known as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO).

“I am disturbed at rumors that the administration may not keep to the agreement in the budget submission that it will send to Congress in a few weeks,” he said. 

“Rather than ask for more money to cover the costs of the accelerated level of operations costs, the administration may be considering, it seems, lowering the base amount and not asking for the increase OCO. They do that, that cuts people, that cuts weapons, that cuts research, that cuts military capability.”

The Armed Services chairman used his address Wednesday to detail his committee's priorities for 2016.

He said strengthening special operations forces, ensuring sufficient defense funding and encouraging technological experimentation at the Pentagon will all be among the top items on the agenda.

Thornberry also cautioned against an over-reliance on special operations forces (SOF), which has been Obama’s preferred method of carrying out ground operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Still, Thornberry added, his committee will explore ways to improve those forces.

“One of the areas where SOF excels is in working with other security forces, and we’re also going to be examining ways to help strengthen that capability because undoubtedly we’re going to be doing more of that.”

Another goal is to encourage more experimentation and prototyping in the Pentagon’s acquisition process. Congress made some progress on acquisition reform last year, and he said he plans to build on that this year.

To do that, he’ll introduce a stand-alone acquisition bill, solicit feedback and then fold it into the National Defense Authorization Act.

One obstacle to experimentation, he said, is that it’s hard to get funding for projects other than programs of record, and it’s hard to abandon a project once it’s a program of record.

“To do that a cultural shift is needed, not only at DOD, but within the Congress,” Thornberry said. “We have to accept, or even expect, regular, small failures in order to have greater success. If every experiment is a success, we’re not learning very much.”