Sen., Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., discusses the need to spend more on defense to deter future conflict, missile defense investment, and intermediate range weapons with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Our coverage as sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
Senator John Kyl
Reagan National Defense Forum
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, where our coverage is sponsored by Leonardo DRS and L3 Technologies.
It’s my honor to be talking to the soon to be senior Senator from the great state of Arizona, Senator John Kyl. Sir, thanks very much for taking time and talking with us this morning.
Senator John Kyl: My pleasure. Thank you.
Mr. Muradian: Obviously the National Defense Strategy Commission has put its findings out. That’s a big focus of this conversation here. The group cochaired by Ambassador Eric Edelman and the former Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead. We had a chance to talk to them in DC for a part of the roll-out process at Johns Hopkins SAIS. One of the points they make is that there needs to be increased sustained investment of almost a trillion dollars in national defense. Otherwise the defense strategy that’s been written by the administration is unsustainable. But they also talk about the grave risks of not doing that. Saying that the United States not only will be unable to support the global rules-based order that’s maintained stability, but also be vulnerable to a potential catastrophic loss. Is that how you and some of your colleagues regard this report?
Senator Kyl: Yes, is the short answer. AS a member of that commission before I reentered the Senate after five years, I would want to emphasize that of the 12 members — half appointed by Democrats, half by Republicans, the Chairman and Ranking of the two Armed Services Committees — our findings were unanimous. We reached a consensus. Now think about that in Washington, DC among Republicans and Democrats. And the consensus was even more striking because it was the first time that I think a commission like this has actually said we could lose a war. And we didn’t mind making the point that this isn’t a matter of prioritizing the things that need to be done. We outlined all of the things that needed to be done and our findings were predicated on the notion that unless we do them all, we will fall further behind in certain cases with Russia and China, and we won’t be able to meet our other obligations with respect to challenges from places like North Korea, Iran, and the terrorist threat.
So this isn’t a matter of choosing our poison here. This is a matter of having to commit ourselves to do everything that’s necessary to protect American interests.
Mr. Muradian: How do you take that conversation to the American people at the end of the day? The national debt is high and rising, which is something that you also have always looked at through your career. In our past conversations, we’ve talked about the debt, the importance of national security, but also fiscal rectitude.
Democrats now have the House. They’re going to have a different set of priorities ultimately. Nobody wants higher taxes, but increasingly it looks like that’s what may be necessary in order to get us out of this as was the case that, you know, and my condolences on the passing of President Bush, but he had to make a devil’s deal in order to take the nation out of the debt that it was facing at the time, and it potentially cost them reelection to a presidency that he might otherwise have retained.
What’s the way forward here in terms of both making the case to the American people who have been told for the past two decades America’s military is the strongest and the best; on the other hand, that everything will require some very hard choices given some fundamental changes in warfare? So how do you address both of those angles?
Senator Kyl: Our expertise was in determining whether or not the National Defense Strategy was sound, and to critique it where we thought that it wasn’t sound.
We decided as commissioners that it wasn’t our job, it was Congress’ job along with the administration to decide how to pay for the things that we said needed to be paid for. So we didn’t recommend whether you raise taxes or cut domestic discretionary spending or any of those things.
We simply tried to make a case to the American people and to the leaders, for example in Congress, that we don’t have a choice anymore. We’ve been living on past investments and sitting on our laurels, in effect, while Russia and China have been making great strides in technological innovation and in doctrine and strategy and how to deal with the United States.
Our strategy developed by the Defense Department to counter that we believe is a sound strategy. But only if it’s adequately resourced, and it wasn’t our job to figure out how to provide the resources. It was our job to say you can’t compromise on this and try to prioritize some things out of the equation.
All of the things that we recommended have got to be done in order for us to be able to deter aggression. That’s the bottom line here.
Think about it as keeping the peace. The Reagan Doctrine of peace through strength worked. We had peace because we had strength. Russia and China now believe that there are areas in which they can defeat us. And Putin, in particular, can be a pretty reckless guy. You can’t give a potential adversary the opportunity to miscalculate. That’s why we’ve laid out all of the things that are necessary in order for us to deter aggression, to not have war.
Mr. Muradian: But you’re also in the unique position, and I should have said that at the very top, that you were a commissioner before you became a Senator again. But you’re now in the unique position that armed with that information and also an expertise you built in more than three decades as a lawmaker very focused on defense issues, how do you make that case in the body to take this conversation to the American people? Mike Gallagher is one of the most dynamic members of Congress who has always been an articulate spokesman about taking that case out. How do you take that case to the American people, and what are some of the hard choices, whether we like it or not, we may have to be making here in terms of being able to ensure that we have the right capabilities for the future?
Senator Kyl: We start by educating the opinion leaders and the people who ultimately are going to have to write the checks, and that’s the Members of Congress.
Last week the co-chairmen, Ambassador Edelman and Admiral Roughead, made an extraordinary presentation to the Senate Armed Services Committee on which I now sit because I took John McCain’s place, and except for one member of that committee, I think all of the members of the committee acknowledged the validity of the commission’s recommendations and discussed ways in which we could potentially move forward to ensure that those recommendations are satisfied.
Now you do present a challenge because the Democratic party’s taken over the House and the Chairman of the, the putative Chairman of the Armed Services Committee there is not a friend of some of the programs like the nuclear programs that we strongly recommend. So it’s going to be a challenge to convince him.
I think part of that, then, is not only just convincing the opinion leaders, but going to the American people and pointing out what happens if we don’t do all of these things. You talked about prioritizing and deciding what you can have and what you can leave aside. Tell me which of these threats we want to be bear to. We’ll let the North Koreans take their shot? We’ll let Iran continue to roam around and create the problem that it does? We’ll let the terrorists do whatever they want to do? Or we’ll forget about the existential challenges posed by Russia and in the future perhaps our biggest competitor, and that’s China. Tell me which one of those you don’t want to prepare to deal with?
There are enormous consequences to letting our defenses slide to the point where we can’t deal with all of these challenges. Yes, it’s expensive, but if you put it in the context of the share of the overall budget of the United States, or the GDP of the United States, we’re spending less now than we have for decades. And the amount more that we will need to spend is not something that we cannot afford. We can afford it, and I don’t think we can afford not to do it.
Mr. Muradian: Do you think that the American people and some of the leadership and perhaps even the President’s rhetoric is playing into this sense that the United States, of exhaustion of being the leader and not wanting to take on that burden and that mantle that for example President Reagan so passionately championed?
Senator Kyl: Yes. And also the notion that we had a budget deal for the last two years that helps to restore some of the funding, and there’s a suggestion among some that therefore we’ve solved the problem and we can take it easy now.
All we did was staunch the flow of blood. We didn’t even begin to get back to where we need to be, but we got on the right path. We need to continue that right path by appropriating probably three to five percent at least above inflation each year for the next 13 to 15 years. And we also need to end the sequestration threat from the Budget Control Act. That still applies for another two years unless it’s repealed by Congress. And we need to fund the military through a sensible appropriations process whereby things can actually be planned and acquired and deployed in a meaningful, on a meaningful time scale rather than the herkey-jerkey continuing resolutions under which the Defense Department never knows whether they’re going to have the money or not. If it comes, it comes all in a big glob all at once and you’ve got to spend it and then maybe you have to go lean for several months because you don’t know whether it’s going to happen again.
So it’s not only the top line number, but the way the money comes to the Pentagon that’s important.
Mr. Muradian: The Defense Secretary as well as the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, as well as the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, at least for the time being, Mac Thornberry, are going to visit the White House, meet with the President, and Mick Mulvaney on Tuesday to make that case for more defense spending. Let’s not go to the $700 billion number. Let’s go to the higher $733 number at the end of the day.
Adam Smith has made the case that he thinks $700 should be a ceiling. Jim Inhofe has said it should be, $733 should be the floor. How do you think this is going to play out? First, do you think that they can convince the President and particularly his OMB Chief to actually give the department more money?
Senator Kyl: I think the President, unfortunately, spoke out on an occasion in which he said yeah, the Defense Department needs to take the same five percent cut that everybody else does, perhaps thinking that the money in the last two years has solved the problem. Obviously the people who are going to talk to him can explain to him why that hasn’t happened.
I appreciate his concern about the budget. We’re all concerned about that. On the other hand, our first obligation is to keep America safe and secure. That certainly is something the President has wanted to do. And my hope is, and my expectation is, that he will adjust the way that he’s approached this to enable the Defense Department to get the money that it will need.
Mr. Muradian: Do you think that we end up at $716, which is splitting the number, which is a very Washington thing?
Senator Kyl: That’s unacceptable. That’s splitting the baby. The last time I checked, splitting the baby resulted in a death of the baby. So it’s not a choice of zero or splitting the baby. In order to keep our programs alive, you’ve got to save the baby, which means at a minimum $733. That’s a — granted, people think that’s a lot of money, but as a percentage of what we’ve spent in the past and as a percentage of what we can spend given then strength of our economy, it’s much less. So we can afford to do more than that, and in fact, we need to do more.
And may I make one other point? People say we’re spending more than Russia and China. Of course we are. We have an all-volunteer Army, and about 70 percent of our Defense Department expenditures are on our personnel. Their health care, their salaries, to support their families. Russia and China don’t have to do that. They have conscript armies. The pay them a pittance. And they also don’t account for things the way we do, and they’ve also melded their industry and their military together so that many of the expenses for industry don’t show in their military budget. So it’s a false comparison to say well, we spend ten times more than somebody else does.
The question is, what do we need to buy? When do we need to do it? How much is it going to cost? Let’s get to it.
Mr. Muradian: There is a lot of discussion about whether or not sequester — that if a deal is made sequester would be extended as part of that deal. Do you get that feeling at all coming through in any of the conversations you’re having with leadership on either side of the aisle?
Senator Kyl: No, I don’t. I think almost everybody thinks sequestration was a bad idea. So even for those that don’t particularly want to do more in defense spending, I’m not sure they would support that except as a political threat. But it was such a bad idea that both domestic discretionary spending other than defense, as well as defense spending, that I don’t think that has a lot of support anymore.
But it will be the law for the next two years unless it’s changed.
Mr. Muradian: But it’s not likely to be changed, is it?
Senator Kyl: I hope it is. I can’t imagine that we can survive if it isn’t. It’s got to be changed.
Mr. Muradian: Let me take you to missile defense. You were in your tenure, in your 18 years in the Senate, but also when you were a House Member you were very passionate about the issue of missile defenses. When I was a young reporter at Defense News you were always patient with me and talked to me about missile defense programs as well as the Cold War drawdown which was something that was very important to you as well as to Senator McCain.
Talk to us a little bit. One of the things we were hoping, and we haven’t heard from the Defense Secretary yet, full disclosure at the time we taped this, but it looks like the Missile Defense Study, the report, is going to be delayed again.
From your standpoint, what do you want to see out of this report? Whether it’s announced this afternoon or whether it’s announced next month, ultimately? What does this report need to say to map a course forward for what U.S. missile defenses and air defenses should look like given that the United States, frankly, has lagged in this for a long time compared to our adversaries.
Senator Kyl: A general point and then a specific point. Generally, we have to commit ourselves to the defense of the homeland. Not just a limited defense of some area in Europe or to support allies somewhere.
The original Strategic Defense Initiative that Ronald Reagan announced in 1983 was to protect the United States from an attack from the Soviet Union. The idea was to so complicate that attack by the deterrent effective missile defenses that the attack would never come. That’s a moral way to avoid war. It was the Reagan vision, and I think we need to get back to that vision now that we’ve identified as our primary matter of concern Russia and China. They both have the ability to either destroy us completely or to virtually destroy us through intercontinental ballistic missile attack. We would be horribly negligent in not preparing against that. So that’s the general point.
Specifically, it needs to include a very robust space-based component that starts with space-based sensors and eventually leads to space-based interceptors. That was the original Brilliant Pebbles concept of SDI. I think that’s eventually where we have to go.
I hope that the report that comes out acknowledges the fact that you begin with space-based sensors and potentially, as our Defense Strategy Review Commission recommended, that you include all of the above in the consideration for how you proceed. From interceptors to directed energy to laser technology, as well as ground-based systems and sea-based such as Aegis. All of those in a layered way can, along with all the radars and other sensors that are necessary, comprise the kind of complex system that a true missile defense program must have.
Mr. Muradian: But that has been something that is already expensive. At the end of the day we have self-limited where we make some of these investments. We have decided to retain legacy systems that perhaps have been surpassed. Even some of the newest systems we have are actually quite long in the tooth, frankly. Without making any criticism of any of the contractors. It’s not like PAC-3 or THAAD are like brand-new systems at this point. Even the National Missile Defense System now is a little bit on the old side.
From your standpoint, how much sustained investment — have you done a back of the envelope calculation on what it would cost to get this infrastructure? Because there are some folks who are looking at this now and saying well, maybe the hypersonic sensor portion of the system could be sacrificed in upcoming budget cuts.
What exactly should we be carving and setting aside in order to do this given that missile defense and nuclear sort or becomes a bill-payer occasionally in some of these conversations?
Senator Kyl: We, because the Missile Defense Report had not been issued by the time we completed our report, we decided that we would go a little light on that section of the — because our charge was to review the strategy and comment on it. Well, the strategy hadn’t been presented. So what we looked at was a general look at how missile defense needed to fit into the overall deterrent strategy. We believe it is a critical component part.
The ability to complicate an aggressor’s plan to the extent that they won’t miscalculate and attack is a critical part of this, and defenses can beat offenses sometimes in the way that you can deter.
There are a lot of different kind of ways to compare costs. One thing that we, at least that many of us on the commission have urged is, you’ve got to consider the cost of the value of the territory that you’re defending. I should say the value of the territory you’re defending against the cost of whatever the defense is. It’s not just comparing an offensive missile cost with a defensive missile cost. That’s totally an inappropriate way to look at it.
So to answer your question specifically, we didn’t critique the strategy that we hadn’t seen yet, but in laying out what we did, we assume it will require an integrated composition of all the elements that I mentioned including a very robust space-based sensor program, and eventually a space-based interceptor program.
Mr. Muradian: Are we still on the wrong side of the cost curve on that, though, given how many weapons our adversaries are building to literally rain on us, especially area denial capabilities which pose a different set of challenges entirely?
Senator Kyl: Well, look at it this way. If you have to take two or three shots, or three or four shots, the numbers are all classified in how they look at it, and you’ve got a ground-based interceptor system like we do. Right now we’re shooting to have 44 missiles in Alaska and California to deal with the North Korean threat. Those are all the missiles we have. The American people think that we can defeat incoming missiles. That’s it, and we don’t even have all 44 yet. And as you point out, some of the missiles involved are very old. We urge that you don’t put the newest capability of the kill vehicle on top of an old missile, because you’re not sure that’s going to get the job done.
So how many — with thousands of incoming ballistic missiles or at least many hundreds, how far do you think 44 goes? If you have a space component, you can have a composition of very small little satellites that can actually potentially hit an offensive missile in its boost phase as it’s slowly coming up into space and before it releases all of the reentry vehicles that it may have on board as well as decoys, that could be a real savings, and only being in space right now provides that opportunity. There’s a thought that maybe we could get a real quick burn, fast, standard missile that might be able to do that. But we haven’t got it yet. So just from a physics standpoint, space makes a lot of sense.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask three questions, and I know you’ve got to go and we’ve got another interview that’s also coming up.
Let me ask you really quickly on nuclear modernization. Again, you mentioned what Representative Adam Smith, and we’re going to be talking to him here as well, who’s going to be the incoming Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has questioned nuclear modernization. So have some other folks ultimately. And there is some discussion, well, perhaps the ground-based strategic deterrent, the replacement for the Minuteman ICBM should be delayed.
From your standpoint, where do you find the money to do the nuclear recapitalization that the last administration pretty much was like look, it’s taken well past a trillion dollars, given that that’s something that for decades was uninvested in.
Senator Kyl: It’s not well past a trillion dollars, and you’re talking 30 years there. I mean let’s put the numbers in perspective.
The modernization program that’s called for right now is three to four percent of the Defense budget. Three to four percent of the Defense budget, and yet it is our number one priority. Tell me we can’t afford it. At the very most expensive it’s 6.3 or 6.4 percent of the Defense budget. So cost should not be a factor with respect to our nuclear modernization.
Second, President Obama promised as part of the New START Agreement with the Senate that he would propose and would support the modernization program that was the program of record at that time. And more or less in his budgets proposed the amount of money that was necessary for that. Congress didn’t appropriate all that was required. As a result it’s gotten behind to some extent.
But understand the other problem here. As a result of our own negligence in allowing all three legs of the triad — the missile leg, the submarine leg and the bomber leg — to atrophy at the same time, the bill for all three of them is now coming due at the same time, and it’s coming due at the very same time that we have to extend the life of the warheads themselves and to repair, refurbish and rebuild the facilities in which all of this would be done. Uranium being processed in a building built in 1946 that the roof is falling down.
All of this we allowed to deteriorate, and unfortunately, instead of keeping up like you paint your house every six or seven years so you don’t have it fall down around you when you get ready to sell it, we have got to get a better program of keeping the maintenance of all of these things going so that we don’t have the big bill at the end of the day. That’s what we’re facing in the modernization of the triad.
Mr. Muradian: And the trillion dollar figure was the big decades-long investment required in infrastructure and other things.
Very quickly, INF. The administration looks like it’s going to withdraw from it. I think there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily disagree with it, perhaps disagree with how it was done or to try to rope in China as well, given that both Russia and the United States are concerned about Chinese developments on this.
First, do you think that there’s a way to resuscitate the INF in some way and to try to get the Chinese into there to have some form of very solid regime? And if not, what are the kind of intermediate forces the United States needs to build in terms of long-range strategic reach concepts?
And then I have one last walk-off question which is —
Senator Kyl: The answer is we’ve been working at this for five years. There isn’t anything that we haven’t tried with the Russians. We’ve talked to them privately. We’ve talked to them publicly. We’ve tried to shame them. We’ve gone to the international commissions. They’ve made the same findings we have. We’ve made it public. We even shared with them intelligence that proves that they’ve been violating this for a long time, which of course compromises our sources and methods. Exactly what they want. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg just, I think it was last week, made a speech in which he pointed out, this is clear to everybody. They’re in violation.
And there’s nothing that you can do to get them to come back into compliance because it’s clear, they’ve now deployed this system. It isn’t just a matter of researching it, it’s deployed in battalions in Europe.
It’s clear that Putin has made a calculation that the benefit to him having this cruise missile is greater than any penalty that can accrue to him such as the United States leaving the INF Treaty.
All right, to your second question. What could we do? Well, first of all, you have to leave because you can’t do anything that’s potentially in violation if we still claim to be part of the treaty. But more importantly, from an overall arms control perspective, you can’t continue to pretend that the treaty means anything if the Russians are so blatantly violating it and we’re not doing anything about it. You’ve got to do something about it. A treaty has to be enforceable to have any importance at all.
What we can do are a whole series of things. I think we’ve begun to do several of them. First, plan the defenses against this particular kind of — it’s hard, because it’s a very fast, intermediate range cruise missile. Not that much time to plan from when it’s launched to its target. They’re harder to pick up and to destroy. But you’ve got to try to find some defenses, and maybe these are other unique kinds of defenses rather than kinetic kinds of defenses that can potentially prevent it from being an effective weapon.
Then you can also try to think about what kind of offensive capability we could generate that might at least change the equation for the Russians deciding to ever use it for a deterrent effect.
And to the question about China, China already has these kind of missiles. They’re not about to eliminate the capability that they have. Therefore, I think it’s a fool’s errand to try to resuscitate the treaty by bringing China into it.
It didn’t work. The Russians have violated it. Understand reality and react accordingly.
Mr. Muradian: You were somebody very much in the mold of Ronald Reagan, and admired him very much. We’re at the Presidential Library and the conference that’s in his name. My condolences on Senator McCain’s passing, with whom you were very, very close. And also President Bush’s passing, given that you did work closely as well with President Bush.
What can you tell us in terms of the legacy of particularly Senator McCain and [President] Bush and why it’s relevant to us today?
Senator Kyl: These were all, all three men — Ronald Reagan, George Bush and John McCain — were all three who understood the importance of a strong national security presence of the United States in the world, in order to effect peace. And they were willing to support the doctrines and the strategy to be involved internationally, and to spend the money for a strong military to achieve those goals. They never shied away from it. All three of them should be remembered for their commitment to the United States, its people, fulfilling the government’s number one responsibility to keep the people safe. They didn’t shy away from that, and we shouldn’t either.
Mr. Muradian: Sir, thanks very much. It’s always a pleasure.
Senator Kyl: Appreciate it.