A review of nuclear modernization and the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, which DoD released in December, are among the top items for Kathleen Hicks, if the Senate confirms her as Deputy Secretary of Defense.
Hicks, 50, has been involved on the inside and outside of the Pentagon since 1993, most recently as a senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). She was one of a dozen bi-partisan members on the Commission on the National Defense Strategy for the United States, which reviewed the 2018 National Defense Strategy. The latter posited China and Russia as the pacing threats for United States technologically and geostrategically while also noting ongoing threats from North Korea, Iran, and terrorist groups.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served in that capacity under former Pres. George W. Bush and Barack Obama, introduced Hicks virtually at her Feb. 2 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).
At the hearing, she told lawmakers that she believed in the nuclear triad, which “must be modernized in order to be safe, secure and credible.”
“I am worried about the state of the readiness of the nuclear triad, and, if confirmed, that’s an area I would want to get my team in place and start to look at right away,” Hicks said in response to a question from SASC Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.).
But she later told SASC members during the hearing that a review of nuclear capabilities would not be a rubber stamp for ongoing modernization efforts, including the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).
In September, the Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman [NOC] a $13 billion contract to build GBSD, the successor to the Boeing [BA] Minuteman III ICBMs. Adm. Charles Richard, the commander of U.S .Strategic Command, said last month that Minuteman IIIs are past the point of service life extension and that GBSD will have “cyber resilience” against threats (Defense Daily, Jan. 6).
Northrop Grumman plans to deliver a fully integrated GBSD by fiscal 2029 and to achieve full operational capability for GBSD by 2036.
The U.S. Air Force said last year that it plans to begin military construction as early as 2023 to house GBSD at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo. Construction at Malmstrom AFB, Mont., and Minot AFB, N.D., to house GBSD is to begin in 2026 and 2029, respectively.
Defense analysts in Washington, D.C., and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, have suggested that DoD could cut GBSD while maintaining nuclear deterrence. Current plans call for replacing the 400 deployed Minuteman III ICBMs with GBSDs, plus another 259 GBSDs for spares and testing. Acquisition costs will be at least $95 billion, while total life cycle costs could reach $264 billion, according to government estimates.
At the Feb. 2 hearing, Hicks also discussed the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, released in December by the outgoing Trump administration.
“There are some really interesting operational themes that I’m attracted to,” she said in response to a question from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) on the plan.
“There’s a focus on increasing use of autonomy, a focus on dispersal of forces, and a focus on growing the number of small surface combatants, but there are some things I saw in that unclassified report…that I saw as flags,” she said. “There’s an indication that the information in there would require further analysis to validate the numbers. If confirmed, I would want to get in there, get my team together, certainly start to get our leadership for the Navy put in place on the civilian side and assess the importance with the requirements that Congress has established for an FY 22 shipbuilding plan, assess that last document from the Trump administration and make any adjustments necessary.”
According to the plan, the Navy plans to spend $147 billion from fiscal year 2022 to 2026 to procure 82 more ships, not counting unmanned vessels, a sharp increase from fhe Navy’s fiscal year 2021 budget request documents that outlined plans to procure 44 more ships over the five-year FY ’21-25 Future Years Defense program (Defense Daily, Dec. 10, 2020).
Overall, Hicks said that she could live with a slightly higher topline or a slightly lower topline for DoD, as long as the budget number will provide the United States with the required resources to execute its strategy with the associated higher risk, for a lower topline, and lower risk, for a higher topline. But SASC member Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said that getting COVID-19 under control and providing aid to struggling families was the highest national priority and called “spending $740 billion on this one piece of the federal budget,” DoD, “unconscionable.”
“I do think there are ways for the Defense Department to be more efficient, to be more effective,” Hicks said in response to Warren. “Some of those tools…involve things like operational concept advancement, making the right kinds of investments, making sure we have a competitive industrial base, but, frankly, some of the levers that are available take a lot of partnership between Congress, the executive branch, industry, and others to make some hard choices. It would be hard to significantly squeeze the defense budget in light of the threats we face without that kind of effort together to get to some hard choices.”
In response to Warren, Hicks said that policy makers could make some reduction to the DoD topline, as long as there is collaboration among government and industry officials and as long as there is recognition of the increased risk that a lower topline could bring.
If confirmed, Hicks will be the highest ranked woman ever to serve in a Senate-confirmed civilian position at the Pentagon.