The Chairman’s Mark

Skelton Making His Voice Heard on Iraq and the Military’s Future

Posted May 20, 2007 at 11:00pm

With Democrats having just taken the majority in November after 12 years out of power, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) has been chairman of the Armed Services Committee for only about five months. But his plate is already full. In addition to crafting the massive defense authorization bill that was on the House floor last week, Skelton also has been a key spokesman and adviser to his leadership on what has of late been the dominant issue on Capitol Hill — the Iraq War.

Roll Call Executive Editor Morton M. Kondracke sat down with Skelton in early May — before the House passed the defense authorization measure — to discuss Iraq and the current challenges faced by the American military.

ROLL CALL EXECUTIVE EDITOR MORTON M. KONDRACKE: Just how broken is the military because of the Iraq War and what do you think we need to do to make it whole again?

HOUSE ARMED SERVICES CHAIRMAN IKE SKELTON (D-MO.): Well, the Army in particular I think is in real serious trouble — not just in active duty, it is the Guard and Reserve — due mainly to the equipment situation.

For instance, we had this tornado hit a community in Kansas and wiped it out. And I heard this morning on NPR the governor of Kansas saying that the National Guard can’t do what it is supposed to do because so much equipment is over in Iraq. I think you have some serious problems in the Army and we are trying to correct that — equipment wise, training wise, personnel wise.

What really worries me long term is the fact that you are losing your mid-level officers, your senior captains, junior majors, you are losing your staff sergeants. I had some women in my office this morning. A family friend of one is in the Marines … he is back from [Iraq for] the fourth time. He got wounded the other day. And I think the Marine Corps is not too far behind the Army, but the Army in particular is in trouble.

What part do you say is broken? Well, when I first came to Congress, when I first met you all those many years ago, going down to Fort Bragg, and the caliber of the soldier I saw then is a far cry from what the caliber of the soldier is today. The caliber of the young soldier is good today. They are wearing them out, just wearing them out. And you can’t train on the equipment because it is not here. And a large percentage of the equipment is in either Iraq or Afghanistan. And it is getting worn down farther. I mean with the sand, they are having trouble replacing it. By the time a brigade, however, is deployed they are ready, but your readiness level of the brigade here … is low. …

[There is] a lot readiness work in our [defense authorization] bill. A lot of it for personnel and everything, from medical care and family care, training, equipment. We do make a major step, but still you are wearing these young people out and it worries me to death.

ROLL CALL: So how can you keep captains and majors and staff sergeants?

SKELTON: I don’t know. I don’t know. Money will only go so far. That’s about the point they make a decision and in just normal life you will have a lot of people at about the 10-year mark saying, you know, “I want to go home. My family wants to go home.”

But you are seeing so many of them now. I don’t have the exact figure, but over 50 percent of the young West Point graduates that are eligible to leave — see they have a five-year commitment — are leaving. And those are your future colonels, those are your future generals. And dollar-wise that may potentially keep a few of them — bonuses, et cetera — but that is not it. You have to talk to a spouse whose husband has been deployed more than once to get the feel of this. You are wearing them out. We are trying to fix that.

What is readiness? Well, it is all of the above: equipment, training, morale, thinking of the family. Frankly, you have to have a support of a family to do a good job. You know, in any profession, particularly if you are in the military, whether you are in Air Force, Navy, or Marines especially. They are all stretched, but the Army in particular.

ROLL CALL: Do you plan to authorize an expansion of the active duty force?

SKELTON: Yes. [I] hope so.

ROLL CALL: By how much?

SKELTON: 7,000 for the Army, 5,000 Marines is my recollection. I’m sure that is right. And that will help some. Now, you are also going to have recruiting challenges. You like that word — challenges? That is what the military uses. They are going to have to recruit extra hard to get those. I am told that only three out of every 10 young Americans really would qualify, which surprises me.

ROLL CALL: Educationally? Physically?

SKELTON: Educationally and physically.

ROLL CALL: Three out of 10 young Americans? Wow.

SKELTON: That is what I am told. Sounds like a little much for me but, you know, too heavy, bad teeth, not having a high school diploma, all of the above.

ROLL CALL: And what are you going to do about the reliance that we’ve placed on the National Guard and the Reserves in this combat? What have we learned from heavy reliance on Reserves and National Guard to prepare for the future?

SKELTON: Well, we try to take care of them equipment-wise. We are also restructuring the entire National Guard, particularly the top end of it. …

ROLL CALL: You are proposing to put a National Guard commander in the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

SKELTON: No.

ROLL CALL: No. Not going to happen?

SKELTON: No.

ROLL CALL: That was misreported?

SKELTON: We are going to have a four-star National Guard that will be considered a joint billet, but no, not a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That’d best be confusing.

ROLL CALL: The Army National Guard now is what?

SKELTON: Three star.

ROLL CALL: Three star.

SKELTON: Yes. Actually in charge of the entire National Guard is a three star and then of course you have the Army and the Air Force, too. But you will have a four star. That puts them at the table and makes them the Guard adviser to the [Defense] secretary. I think that is a good thing, but separate and distinct from being a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That is another animal. …

ROLL CALL: What are the key priority differences between you and the administration in this authorization bill?

SKELTON: We’ll be increasing the threat reduction dollars. We’ll be decreasing somewhat the missile defense dollars. We’ll be increasing tremendously the vehicle called MRAPs [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected]. … We have to do that. Just have to do it for protection. I had a young man from my district who lost both legs in a Humvee, both legs. He came by the chamber — I saw him down at Walter Reed — and he came by the chamber [and] he was walking down on prosthesis.

ROLL CALL: Is this a vehicle that is currently procurable?

SKELTON: Yes, yes. There are, they said nine, in actuality there are five companies, I think they are smaller companies, that are making them today that we can procure them from. And we’ll be able to get maybe about 4,400 of them immediately. Well, soon. Very soon.

ROLL CALL: You said threat reduction. What is your emphasis on threat reduction?

SKELTON: In dollars?

ROLL CALL: Yes, but what does threat reduction mean?

SKELTON: In two areas. The chemical threat reduction with Russia and the nuclear threat reduction with Russia. In other words, making sure that their chemical and their nuclear [materials] are kept out of the hands of potential terrorists. … We’ve been trying to do this for several years and on a party-line vote it has been defeated. [Rep.] John Spratt’s [D-S.C.] the father of this and he is very knowledgeable in this. And he’s right. And if we don’t take good care of what the former Soviet Union has glued together in both the nuclear and chemical there are going to be some real troubles. I think we address that.

ROLL CALL: On the missile defense issue, does missile defense look like it is going to work?

SKELTON: Some of it will, I hope. Some of it is right now problematical. But there are several different programs going in. … You are trying to hit a bullet with a bullet … and it is not an easy thing and they have not had real good luck. Some of them are promising so [Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces Chairwoman Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.)] is giving them some of the money, but she cut it down. You know, I can’t brag enough about the subcommittee chairman and ranking [member Terry Everett (R-Ala.)]. They are really working well together. They really are.

ROLL CALL: There seems to be a demand for extra ships.

SKELTON: You bet.

ROLL CALL: OK. Why do we need a bigger Navy than we’ve got?

SKELTON: Presence and potential capability. Remember the push for Ronald Reagan’s 600-ship Navy? Well, the Navy is at an all-time present-day low today. … It is 280-something [ships]. … To begin with you need more presence. I think it fell down below 300 recently for the first time in at least the modern era. Presence. Better capability should you actually need it.

Prior to the Second World War the Congress, particularly the Armed Services Committee or the Naval Affairs Committee at the time, had the foresight to build a number of aircraft carriers. Thank goodness. Thank goodness we did it because we were ready. And so, as you know, for the Battle of Midway … you had them.

And, you know, in the last 30 years — I’ve been in Congress a little over 30 years now — in the last 30 years we’ve had 12 military contingencies, four of which have been major, and the Navy has … been necessary to have its presence and in some we have actually used the aircraft carriers actively, in particular Desert Storm. You need a large Navy for a seagoing country and we are a seagoing country.

Many years ago on the way to Korea from Australia, I flew over the Malacca Straits and at about 40,000 feet all you saw were ships. They had no idea. And if sea lanes get cut off, our country is in serious trouble and that is why you need a Navy to help keep sea lanes open. Never underestimate the power of presence.

ROLL CALL: What has happened to transformation, the [former Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld idea, which as I understood it was to have high-tech long-distance strike as a replacement for boots on the ground? What is happening is to that concept?

SKELTON: You need boots on the ground and this is proven by the fact that you have necessity for boots on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan today. That would be nice, but as result of the conflicts we’ve had you are going to need boots on the ground.

Remember when we were talking about cutting the Army Divisions down to eight? And now they are asking for additional troops. I’ve been saying based on testimony, Mort, since 1995 we need an additional 40,000 Army troops. We finally got 30,000 through supplementals about two years ago, and now we are doing them in the base bill and they are recommending additional troops in the base bill.

I think that it was just a misconception of what future combat was going to look like. If you do it all by long-distance technology, fine. But there is no substitute for a soldier or a special operations person ferreting out a potential enemy or an enemy. That was a misjudgment.

ROLL CALL: Did he get his long-distance strike …

SKELTON: Well, we had it …

ROLL CALL: Anymore then …

SKELTON: Well, we are upgrading and have upgraded the B-2s. We still have the B-52s. Does that help a little bit?

ROLL CALL: Yeah.

SKELTON: By the way, I have been pushing for the capability of 250-pound bombs in the B-2 and …

ROLL CALL: Which would be smaller than the 500 pounds.

SKELTON: Yes. 250 pound. But you can have now 80 500-pound bombs. I forget how many 250 you can put in there, but a lot more. And they are all JDAM-type, they are all capable of hitting pinpoint a chimney on a house.

ROLL CALL: Just a couple of last things that are a part of this policy briefing. Should the Joint Strike Fighter engine be built by more than one company?

SKELTON: Yes.

ROLL CALL: Why?

SKELTON: Well, two reasons. It is always best to have two suppliers and it is always best to have some competition.

ROLL CALL: And why do we have to expand our submarine fleet?

SKELTON: You don’t know what the future is going to hold. I think it is necessary to have a larger submarine fleet because potential enemies will have submarines. We … have the most capable ones out there. You don’t know what the future holds … and you hope it doesn’t happen. But if 12 military contingencies have happened in the last 30 years … you are going to have them in the future. I hope I am wrong. And to look in the future to the type of weaponry you need is an educated guess. My educated guess is that we are going to need submarines because potential adversaries will have submarines. …

ROLL CALL: Last question. Is it possible to do procurement reform in wartime?

SKELTON: Certainly. Certainly. It is kind of like [fixing] an airplane in flight to do a lot of these things, but the answer is yes.

You always do things better. You always buy better. You always do oversight better. By the way, the committee, you haven’t touched on it, we’ve done a lot of oversight this year thus far. We have an oversight subcommittee and [Rep.] Marty Meehan [D-Mass.] is leading this thing. I’m happy for him.

By the way he has done an excellent job as the chairman of [the Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations]. When the Republicans took over Congress [in 1995] they abolished the investigations subcommittee. We put it back and Marty Meehan and his subcommittee has been doing a first-class job in that area. Their main subject now is investigating the Iraqi Security Forces. And they have given me an interim report. …