Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va. (Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., could be called the U.S. Houseís dean of Navy shipbuilding, and he is attempting to become its top Asia-Pacific strategist. Whatís more, most insiders put him on the shortlist for possible successors to retiring House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif. Forbes is chairman of the committeeís seapower subcommittee.
On that topic, Forbes was complimentary of his likely rivals for the panelís gavel. ďIt really is kind of the team effort. It doesnít matter who is sitting in the chair and who has got the gavel, I donít think.Ē
He spoke with Defense News on March 5, one day after the Defense Department released its fiscal 2015 budget and latest quadrennial defense review (QDR).
Q. What are your thoughts on the Pentagonís 2015 budget request and then the QDR? What are the strong suits of both and the weaknesses?
A. Itís like the baby with the bathwater. Donít throw it out. There are some positive things in the QDR, but they are mostly nomenclature. The way Iíve characterized it, itís kind of like they turned the ship in the right direction, but they just donít have a propulsion system to get it where it needs to go. They havenít given it any capabilities. So, if you look, they at least do recognize the importance of the Asia-Pacific area. They recognize the importance of doing things with munitions and how important thatís going to be. They recognize the role seapower is going to play in the next decade. The problem is, when you link that with the budget, there are no capabilities that are driving that, at least not adequate capabilities.
Q. Speaking of capabilities, they cost money. How much is enough?
A. Well, nobody can answer that question right now, because they havenít asked the question that I think is important to ask. This was a fair question that was set forth by [House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith]: We should be only focused on the dollars that have been set forth by Congress in how we allocate those dollars. We shouldnít ask other questions outside of that. I just refuse that limitation. I think itís vitally important for us to be asking what does it take to defend The United States of America? Now, after youíve asked that question, I can come close to telling you the dollars and cents that are behind there, but the world has a vote in this thing. And basically when you start asking the question, I canít just come up and say, OK, I only need five aircraft carriers, because thatís all I want to spend. Thatís a ludicrous thing for me to say. I have to say, how many carriers does it take to defend this country? Then if I canít get there, at least I have put on the table what we need to defend the country, so we start asking two questions. One, what can we afford to spend? Fair question, you know how much do we want to spend, but the other corollary is what is the risk to the United States of America if we donít spend those dollars?
Q. So $500 billion per year is, to you, not enough?
A. No, no. You cannot spend your way into national security, but at the same time, you canít get it on the cheap. When you say how much is enough, I can tell you cutting 11 cruisers out, by any analysis I know, thatís not enough. There are huge gaps when we wonít have a carrier out there. That is dangerous when you look at every one of our contingency scenarios.
Q. In the Navy budget, the only area that went up is research and development. Would you recommend, though, stripping money out of R&D for new weapons?
A. Well I think the R&D is part of that new weapons capability. Here is what I am arguing: We should be asking the question. We should be saying, OK, next decade, where is our [biggest] vulnerability? [An admiral said] if youíre looking at where you put your dollars in defense budget, you need it where it has the most consequence and the most impact. In the next decade, that is going to probably be in the seapower and projection forces. If that is true, and Iím just saying we should at least be asking the question.
Q. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gives his budget preview and the mainstream media focused on the size of the Army. It was all about the troop strength. There doesnít seem to be much of an awareness of the Navy, of sea power. What can you do about it?
A. Well, the public wasnít interested in sequestration when it first came out. When Iím giving a speech somewhere, and I tell somebody the Chinese, in eight years, will have 80-plus submarines versus our 32, that resonates, and they understand.
Q. Thatís the outside game. Thereís also an inside game. Conservative members of your party played a major role in setting spending caps. How do you convince them to support raising defense caps?
A. What weíve been trying to get across to anybody that writes about this, thinks about this and has their livelihood dependent upon this, is the first step is not to use their terminology of settling. You know, what frightens me the most is these people that are going around saying, ďWell, this is the number. We just have to live with this number.Ē It is a self-defeating mentality. So the first thing Iím saying is, donít let that hemorrhaging keep going. Second thing is: Iím trying to tell people theyíve got to have an organization across the country. I think youíre going to have to have an overlay where all of these guys stop just worrying about their own lanes, be it subs or carriers or this aircraft or that aircraft. I think what itís going to take is us doing some truly intellectual pushback to try to have a fair debate.
Q. On the remaining defense sequestration cuts, if Republicans take control of the Senate ó and keep the House ó would the party push legislation to turn off the remaining defense cuts?
A. I know they could. The question is not whether they could. Itís whether they would. And look, you know Iím going to be the first one to tell you that we kind of need a consensus of leadership in the Republican Party. We used to be the party of defense. We need to become the party of defense again. The reason is not for political reasons; itís because the national defense of this country is going to depend on one party taking that lead. So, we certainly could do that. A lot of that depends on the mix in the Senate.
Q. Will you be campaigning for Republican Senate candidates?
A. Probably not. What I will be doing is talking about these defense issues, and whomever wants to embrace those, I will say theyíre doing the right thing. If they donít embrace them, I will say theyíre doing the wrong thing.
Q. Do you think the White House is playing politics with aircraft carrier cut threats?
A. No, no, thatís all money. I think itís dangerous politics for them to play. It doesnít take a rocket scientist to know when you walk in the room and youíre looking at dollars and carriers, itís a pretty big thing to put on the table. Pacific Command chief Adm. Samuel Locklear says, ďI donít have enough now. I canít get by with less carriers.Ē
Q. Where is the aviation lobby, especially retirees, in all of this though?
A. The retired guys havenít done it with the Navy very much. I mean, really if you look at some of these organizations that really should have been pounding this table, I mean, Iím not pointing fingers, but they just havenít done it. I donít want you to think that the fact that Iím talking carriers and cruisers means that we havenít had a couple of meetings on F-35, because we have. We [also] havenít talked a lot about munitions. Most of these guys will tell you it doesnít do them any good to have great platforms out there if I donít have anything to fire from the platform.
Q. All their missiles have gone off the budget.
A. Thatís right, and they are really, really worried about that. That is a valid concern for them. Here is the problem with planes when we drop back our buys, what happens is our allies drop back their buys. Itís not because they made a conscious decision out there and said, oh, OK, we donít need them anymore. Itís just because if the United States drops four F-35s, they are dropped by everybody else. When I say dropped, I mean pushed to the right. Theyíre still going to get them, same thing. But what that does is increases the cost, obviously for all those items. That is a debate and a discussion we need to be having, but donít think just because I havenít talked about that that it is not ongoing. Itís just I havenít seen the retired folks come up on any of these issues and really be leading the charge and pounding.
Q. This is the first budget since the late í70s with no F/A-18 of any variant on request. That is planned. That leaves eventually after 2016 the country with only one fighter manufacturer after we had dozens for decades. Would you favor keeping the 18 line open and why?
A. When you say would I favor it, I think it would be better for me to say, I would be open to it. Hereís the reason. There is no question that weíve got to have those fifth- generation [F-35s].
The Air Force chief will say point blank, unequivocally, if I have a fifth-generation plane going against a fourth-generation plane, the fourth-generation plane dies. It doesnít matter who is the pilot. So it is vitally important if we are going to hang onto air dominance that we have the fifth-generation planes. So if it is between getting fifth-generation planes and not getting fifth-generation planes, thatís a different ballgame.
But am I concerned about production lines? Iím incredibly concerned about production lines. It goes to the whole industrial base question.
Q. Former secretaries of state from both parties say the situation with Russia in Ukraine likely will be a long play. Can the Pentagon carry out the pivot to Asia with new tensions in Eastern Europe?
A. Weíre not doing the pivot now. I have not had anybody in uniform shut that door and say, ďYeah, we have got the capabilities we need to do that shift.Ē I wish I could say yes. I just canít in good conscious tell you that I feel like we are making that shift. If youíre not doing one, I donít think you can do two [pivots]. But I think what it at least tells us is this, if nothing else: Our curve lines are headed in the wrong direction.