Q & A: Helter Skelton
Armed Services Chairman Takes Oversight Role Seriously
Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is from Truman country. In fact, his father and former President Harry Truman were friends, and the 17-year-old Skelton attended the 33rd president’s inauguration in 1949.
Now, with a new president in office, Skelton sees a window of opportunity to reform the Pentagon’s acquisition process and implement a new strategy for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Reforming that process has been at the top of Skelton’s agenda for many years, and after reports that major weapons programs experienced nearly $300 billion in cost overruns last year, Skelton realized legislation was needed soon. Along with Armed Services ranking member John McHugh (R-N.Y.), Skelton introduced a sweeping bill to overhaul the acquisition process. The committee hopes to move quickly on the legislation later this spring.
Skelton spoke last week with CongressNow staff writer Eugene Mulero for Roll Call about the legislation, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ proposed weapons cuts.
CONGRESSNOW REPORTER EUGENE MULERO: I wanted to start with the pending [Weapons Acquisition System Reform Through Enhancing Technical Knowledge and Oversight] Act. A lot was said by you and your colleagues when you unveiled the bill that the time was right for it; that you are optimistic this legislation will [pass]. I wanted to ask you, what exactly about the current political climate gives you such confidence?
HOUSE ARMED SERVICES CHAIRMAN IKE SKELTON: I think basically there’s an attitude of addressing problems that carry over from the campaign — a thing called change. We all know that the acquisition system, at best, is a maze and difficult to work. So rather than rush to judgment and put in legislation immediately, I appointed a panel with Rep. Rob Andrews [D-N.J.] as chairman and Rep. Mike Conaway [R-Texas] as ranking member. And they have held hearings and had briefings. We announced it [April 23; we introduced it April 27]. That will tackle the acquisition of major weapon systems. But it really constitutes about 20 percent of the acquisition necessary for military. We are tackling major weapons systems. And what we did is, I think, was a major step in the right direction. It goes much further than the legislation that the Senate introduced [S. 454]. And we will be holding a markup on it in the very, very near future.
The panel will continue to exist and work on other aspects of acquisition. Probably they will be more structural in nature, as opposed to concentrate on weapons. And that’s what we intend to do. This is what we want to do.
ROLL CALL: Any sense of the timeline you expect to have the markup and when it could reach the floor?
SKELTON: We expect it soon. And we hope to get it on the floor in a reasonable time thereafter. With this acquisition bill we need to pay attention to cost delays, acquisition and so on, and [put the] spotlight on greater accountability in the legislation.
ROLL CALL: You mentioned there would be no amendments during the markup. Why are you so confident about that?
SKELTON: I didn’t say there would be no amendments. I said the panel has done such a thorough job. People are on the panel because they are keenly interested in this. I think the bill will move, basically, in the current form that it is now. We welcome good amendments. I think the major thinking has already gone into it, from the panel.
ROLL CALL: Did the panel ever express to you, or did you have any concerns with the [pending] Levin-McCain legislation [in the Senate]?
SKELTON: It wasn’t strong enough. Without going into details, 25 percent of our legislation goes beyond the Levin-McCain proposals. We actually will have, as a result, people who will be independent from the process. For example, we will designate a person who will work as an expert in performance assessment in the acquisition field. We require certain programs to be put in “intensive care.— Some of them are behind or over budget. They are sick programs and require intensive oversight and reviews and the service systems have to track the cost in the schedule.
ROLL CALL: What else is on the agenda that you hope to accomplish before the August recess?
SKELTON: We, of course, hope to have our defense bill out of committee and passed on the floor well before the August recess. Let me just say we have had 40 public hearings, of which 12 were full committee hearings. We had a total of 177 in the 110th Congress. We put a lot of effort in oversight. We will continue to examine Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq. And two areas we have focused on include the impact of the economy on national security; you recall [Dennis] Blair, director of National Intelligence, saying the greatest security threat we have is the economy of our nation. And we also held a hearing on piracy on the high seas before the [April] incident. And of course, acquisition reform — and that will be a separate bill.
ROLL CALL: What about the issue of cybersecurity, now that it has come up? Has that been upgraded on your agenda?
SKELTON: No question.
ROLL CALL: OK.
SKELTON: It’s an area that many do not understand. Cybersecurity is a two-prong animal. To look at it in the macro sense, one is to defeat those who are trying to hack into you and do damage. And the other area is a proactive effort to go the other direction. It’s an area that is foreign to so many folks in and out of uniform. There will be an effort to create a solid cybercommand. This will receive a lot of attention in our committee. It is the frontier of national security in the purest form.
ROLL CALL: How did you react to the Pentagon acknowledging that alleged cyberspies had retrieved information relevant to the F-35 [fighter plane]?
SKELTON: It is disturbing; highly disturbing. I’m hoping that our cyberdefense would prevent that. And we learned, perhaps, we need to enhance some areas of cybersecurity.
ROLL CALL: Regarding proposed weapons cuts, what will you press Secretary Gates on, when he again addresses the committee in May?
SKELTON: I think the news media is missing what he is recommending, because the law comes from us. What he is recommending is taking care of the troops. That’s most of his budget recommendations. Of course, so much of it comes from us. The continuing growth of the Army and the Marines and halting the reduction of the Navy and the Air Force; continuing the medical research, recognizing the human nature of the wounded and the injuries and the psychological help programs; and improving child care and spousal support; and enlarging housing — all of this goes to the personnel in his recommendation. A lot, of course, has been started by us. But the fact that he endorses it, and puts it in his act, is historic for trying to take care of the troops better and their families. And the weapons systems proposals he is making tend to make the headlines, but the truth of the facts is, he is working hard to take care of the troops and keep good people and recruit good people. That is the basis of his proposal, and it’s a reflection of what we’ve been trying to do in our committee.
ROLL CALL: And he supports acquisition reform.
SKELTON: Absolutely. He has made recommendations, to his credit. He, of course, will receive questions about a cybercommand and cyberspace activities. As I said, that is the new frontier and it needs to be addressed. It will be addressed by Congress. I’m sure he’ll ask for recommendations from us.
ROLL CALL: Some of your colleagues who are garnering these headlines with the proposed weapons cuts argue that cutting the F-22 and the Army’s Future Combat Systems, for instance, would impact the national security. How do you react to that argument?
SKELTON: The subcommittees need to continue to scrutinize every system that there is. I know the [Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces] has been looking closely at the Future Combat Systems and making recommendations. Every weapons system needs to be scrutinized. As time goes on, some things get outdated. And it’s a constant research and development on one hand, and constant procurement on the other. And it’s all guided on the budget process. You can’t have everything that you want. That’s why you have to pick and choose. We are putting $13 billion to increase the personnel system. That $13 billion has to come from somewhere. We need to take care of the troops and the Members have to know that.
ROLL CALL: Some describe you as a military historian. What do you think is the historical significance of the Obama administration opting not to use the phrase “global war on terror?—
SKELTON: I don’t particularly like that phrase. I’m not sure what it means. We are engaged in a conflict with Islamic extremists. And we should handle it as such, and we are. The genesis of those who attacked us was in Afghanistan. That’s where we should’ve kept our eye on the ball. And as a result of our efforts, Iraq — and Saddam was a very, very, very bad man — but we slighted the efforts in Afghanistan, so al-Qaida joined its protectors, the Taliban people. Now al-Qaida, the Taliban and criminals have all banded together in Afghanistan. … We support helping stop those who attacked us in the Afghanistan area. And we will have to help Afghanistan build up its army, and hope to get the police to do a much better job. Their army is getting in better shape. There’s disappointment from the police, and hopefully that can be rectified. And I want to see our NATO partners and allies do more to help us militarily, as well as with reconstruction.
ROLL CALL: But more to the idea, that when military historians and political scientists 10 to 15 years from now review the phrase “global war on terror— itself, you think they’ll use it as an indicator for the mood of the country?
SKELTON: I think future historians will reflect on the fact that we have not had a solid strategy in the Middle East. I put out the statement, dubbed: “Top Defense Challenges Facing a New Administration.— And the No. 1 point, “We Must Develop a Clear Strategy to Guide National Security Policy.— We haven’t had one. It’s been a pickup ball game in the Middle East. And the basic lessons from Sun Tzu to Napoleon have all taken guidelines to developing strategy first. And we didn’t do that, sadly. I think we have now. I think it’s beginning to come together on a solid strategy. And I want to compliment the team that President Obama has put together for this. It’s beginning to happen. [National Security Adviser] Gen. James Jones is one of the centerpieces for this. Secretary Gates understands this. [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael] Mullen understands this. I think you have a solid team who understands this. The bottom line is you have to have a strategy, and here it is, being put together. Like the Glenn Miller song “At Last.—