ICYMI: Sullivan Presses Senior DOD Nominees on KC-46 Basing & the Arctic

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a hearing last Thursday questioned several senior Department of Defense (DOD) nominees on priorities important to Alaska, including the basing of the KC-46 tanker aircraft, the need for a strategic Arctic port, and legislative efforts to establish a “Ted Stevens Arctic Center for Security Studies” within the DOD. Sullivan also asked the nominees to commit to coming to Alaska in their new roles should they be confirmed. The witnesses included Kenneth J. Braithwaite, nominee to be Secretary of the Navy, James H. Anderson, nominee to be Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., nominee to be Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. 

“With each hearing of the Armed Services Committee and testimony from our top defense experts, the case for basing the KC-46 in Alaska gets stronger and stronger,” said Senator Sullivan. “I appreciate the nominees for acknowledging the vitally important factors that will influence the DOD’s decision, including placing the squadron near multiple combatant commands and world-class training space, and co-locating the squadron near the fifth-generation fighters they will service—all factors, in my view, that clearly favor Eielson.”

The U.S. Air Force will soon be announcing a decision on where to base a squadron of KC-46As at one of four candidate bases in the Indo-Pacific, which includes Eielson Air Force Base (AFB). Senator Sullivan has pressed DOD officials for years on the benefits of basing KC-46s in Alaska, including providing the U.S. Air Force with globally-responsive aerial refueling capabilities and pairing the KC-46 with the 100 combat-coded 5th Generation fighters Alaska will soon have. 

Below is a transcript and video of the exchanges Senator Sullivan had with the nominees in the Thursday hearing.

Basing of the KC-46:

SULLIVAN:  Thank you. This committee mandated a few years back the National Defense Strategy Commission Report, which was cochaired by former Undersecretary Eric Edelman and Admiral Gary Roughead. One of the findings and recommendations of that report was that it was important to reverse what they called, quote, "an unhealthy trend," whereby civilians, both in the Pentagon, and importantly, here in the Congress were, quote, "less and less involved in critical military decisions" like basing decisions in the allocating of forces across theaters. For that reason, this committee has weighed in on a number of important basing decisions such as the OCONUS basing decision of the KC-46. And General Brown, I want to talk at length with you about that, as we did in my office the other day. 

In the [National Defense Authorization Act] in 2017 and 2018, this committee and the Congress put forward the kind of characteristics they believe were important when looking at the OCONUS KC-46 basing decision, and in a hearing in 2018, I ran through a number of these characteristics mandated by Congress with [U.S. Air Force] Secretary [Heather] Wilson and [Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force] General [David] Goldfein, and I'd like to see if your views line up with theirs. One of the things that, again, mandated by the Congress -- important to look at having the KC-46 located near not just one, but several COCOMs, if possible. General Goldfein thought that was important. Do you agree with it -- do you agree with that, General?

BROWN:  I do, Senator. 

SULLIVAN:  You do? OK. The other, again, characteristics mandated by Congress -- near outstanding training facilities, especially for 5th-[generation] fighters and training with joint and international partners, Secretary Wilson and General Goldfein said absolutely. Do you agree with that?

BROWN:  I agree.

SULLIVAN:  The third area was being near facilities that have large airspace for training, large runways, hangers, aircrews, maintenance and very large fuel storage and distribution capabilities. Again, the former chief of staff -- or current chief of staff and secretary of the Air Force [Secretary] Wilson and General Goldfein said that was important. Do you agree with that? 

BROWN:  I do.

SULLIVAN:  And then, in a hearing we had twice now I asked the secretary of defense, particularly given the National Defense Strategy with regard to our Russia, China, North Korea challenges, if you co-located KC-46s that were co-located with 100 [5th]-generation fighters, F-22s and F-35s, in Alaska, which is what we're going to have in the next year, what kind of message would that send to our adversaries in the NDS, China, Russia, North Korea, Iran? 

The Secretary of Defense has twice now stated the message that would be sent is that that would give the message to our potential adversaries that the United States has extreme strategic reach. Do you agree with that, General?

BROWN:  I do, Senator. 

SULLIVAN:  Senator Kaine mentioned an issue that just came up in a hearing just a couple months ago. General Lyons mentioned in his posture statement that the air refueling fleet is TRANSCOM's more stressed capability and number one readiness concern and continues to underpin the joint force's ability to deploy an immediate force across all NDS mission areas, and that's critical. Based on General - or Senator Kaine's mention of this being an urgent manner what General Lyons said recently to this committee, do you agree that it makes sense as General Goldfein had said to bed down KC-46 OCONUS decision tankers, our most limited and stressed resource, in a location that allows them to be responsive to multiple threats and multiple combatant commands?

BROWN:  Senator, I agree that we should base the KC-46 in the places that give us the most flexibility.

SULLIVAN:  How about multiple combatant commands… does that allow the most flexibility? 

BROWN:  Senator, that is one of the areas that we look at and to give the most reach and as you described in our conversation earlier this week.


SULLIVAN: Does it make sense on the flip side to have OCONUS KC-46s in a location that's focused only on one combatant command and will be vulnerable soon to long-range precision weapons from our adversaries in the INDOPACOM region?

BROWN:  Senator, that probably does not because it increases the risk to the fleet. 


SULLIVAN:  Well, gentlemen, I'm going to finish up with a few more questions, and then we'll finish up this hearing. General Brown, with regard to the OCONUS basing of the KC-46, I've outlined a lot of what others have said -- the secretary of defense, General Goldfein, Secretary Wilson, this committee, the Congress. As you probably know -- you may know, there are other senior military members who have made comments both in private meetings and publicly about this, one saying it's a no-brainer where this OCONUS decision should be. As you know, this is an important matter for me. So I have one final question for you: If General Billy Mitchell were still alive and he were making the OCONUS decision on where to base the KC-46, where do you think he would base the aircraft? And you can just give me a one-word answer.


BROWN:  Senator, I think Billy Mitchell would say Alaska.

SULLIVAN:  OK. He would, and he is the father of the Air Force. Very strategic thinker, correct?

BROWN:  That's correct. 

Arctic Strategy and Port:

SULLIVAN:  Thank you. I do want to switch topics now here with regard to the Arctic, and I appreciate my good friend, Senator King, and you already heard others. And I think I've mentioned to all of you, there's certainly been an awakening of the strategic importance of the Arctic. Our adversaries are not waiting, as Ambassador Braithwaite has already mentioned:  Russia, obviously, but China, others. The great power competition that we now know is upon us is really taking place in that part of the world. We have strategic interests there. We are an Arctic nation because of my great state.

Unfortunately, as I've mentioned to all of you, the Pentagon has really been probably the last agency in town to realize this. And this committee has stepped up in a bipartisan way over the last several years where they're mandating a DOD Arctic strategy, authorizing the building of six Polar-class icebreakers. We have two right now; one is broken, and the Russians have, last count I had, 54, including nuclear and significant capabilities with regard to weaponized icebreakers. 

But it's starting to change, even at the Pentagon. I would say certainly Secretary Barrett, General Goldfein are understanding these issues. [Former] Secretary [of the Navy] Spencer was a real advocate and understood this. So, can I get the commitment of each of you to work with this committee on these important strategy Arctic issues which again the Pentagon has been slowed to but we think are important. Can I get yes from each of you?

BRAITHWAITE:  Yes, Senator.

ANDERSON:  Yes, Senator. 

BROWN:  Yes, Senator.

SULLIVAN:  Let me just ask a more specific issue, Ambassador we talked significantly about the importance Arctic port, as you know the nearest DOD strategic seaport with regard to our interest in the Arctic and the Bering Strait where all this increase shipping traffic is happening is the Port of Anchorage. Alaska is a big state, that is 1,500 miles away from the Arctic Circle, we have nothing else that can handle a destroyer, an ice breaker.

Secretary Spencer was a vocal advocate for the need of a strategic Arctic port, if confirmed can I get your commitment to also be a strong advocate for our need for a strategic Arctic port that can handle a destroyer or an ice breaker? 


SULLIVAN:  Dr. Anderson, how about you? This is an important issue, as you know it's been a bit of an issue again where the Pentagon seems to be the last one to recognize the importance of this. Can I get your commitment if confirmed to be a strong advocate within the building, because the problem is at the top level, the Generals, the Secretaries get it, we get it and yet somehow in the middle of that big building it's stops these initiatives which are important to protect our nation’s strategic interest. 

Can I get your commitment on that issue?

ANDERSON:  Yes, Senator. As you know I testified before the committee in March under the subcommittee and we talked at length about those requirements and along with General O'Shaughnessy and he noted that there's a fuel requirement up there. So, I'm going to take a very hard look at this study that's coming that owe you and I commit to working with you on this issue.

SULLIVAN:  But you owe us, in my view, not a maybe not a blow off like the last time the Pentagon looked at this, you owe us a commitment and I'm expecting that. 

ANDERSON:  You have my commitment. 


Ted Stevens Arctic Center for Security Studies:

SULLIVAN:  By the way, General [Terrance] O'Shaughnessy, [Commander of U.S. Northern Command], is another strong advocate. Let me just make another, you know the Department of Defense has numerous what are called regional centers, you're probably aware of these. These are centers for strategic studies, we have one in Germany that studies NATO and our national security interest.

We have one in Hawaii, the Daniel Inouye Center [for Strategic Studies] in Hawaii that studies the Asia Pacific. We have the William Perry Center that's hemispheric, Latin American, North and South America, that's here in D.C.. The African Center that is also here, the Near East Center that's also here. These are DOD regional centers.

There's not one for the Arctic. I think to show the Pentagon's commitment there should be one. I am going to have language with Senator Murkowski and a bill that we have introduced along with Senator King to have one. Can I get your commitment to work with this committee, which again has been leading on the Arctic to finally have a DOD regional center as it relates to the Arctic, which we will be advocating for in this year's NDAA.

ANDERSON:  Senator, I'm a big fan of regional centers having worked at the Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany for three years so I know the value added that they provide. So if confirmed you have my -- you have my commitment to working with you on this issue.

SULLIVAN:  Do you believe we need a regional center on the Arctic given there's a regional center on literally every other part of the world, with the exception of The Arctic?

ANDERSON:  Senator I need to -- I need to kind of review the options, in terms of what the -- I know at the Marshall Center, for example, they do have some Arctic coverage. I would have to assess whether that is enough or not enough.

SULLIVAN:  It's not enough.

ANDERSON:  I think there is a good case to be made for considering Arctic Center in Alaska, and...

SULLIVAN:  Well, Dr. Anderson I want to just emphasize with you, to me this is going to be a demonstration of whether the Pentagon finally gets it. I've been in this job for 5 1/2 years. It started with the Obama Arctic strategy, which I held up in a hearing with Ash Carter, secretary of defense, and I called it what it was, a joke. It was a joke. It was 13 pages, six of which were pictures. Russia was mentioned once in a footnote. It was a joke.

And since that time we, this committee, have been leading. We need the Pentagon to lead and help us.

I will be viewing this. whether the Pentagon supports this regional center not, as whether you are finally getting serious about this.

So can I get your commitment to take a very hard look at this, and be on the front foot not the back foot, the way in which the Pentagon has been on these Arctic issues since I've been here.

ANDERSON:  Yes sir, you have my commitment.

SULLIVAN:  Let me get one final question. Ambassador, as you and I talked about, there's great training up in Alaska the JPARC has airspace larger than Florida, ground maneuver space larger than Delaware and sea operating space larger than Virginia, just one training range in my state. 

The former comment General Neller was very interested in about much more aggressive training with the Marine Corps, and I've talked to the CNO about much more air-to-air training and red flag at JPARC. Can I get your commitment to take a hard look, and I've talked about this with General Berger of course, the much more significant presence of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines in terms of training, possible UDP deployments up to Alaska to get this outstanding training, and then can deploy on ships to different parts of the Arctic and Asia-Pacific.

BRAITHWAITE:  As you and I discussed last night in great detail, senator, yes I will.


Well, thank you, gentlemen. This has been a very informative hearing.

ANGUS KING (I-Maine):  Senator, do you -- would you consider putting that Arctic Center center in Maine. I'm worried that all the suggestions you made today Alaska may sink into the Arctic Ocean. 


SULLIVAN:  Well, maybe it should be two offices, one in Alaska and one in Maine. We will look hard at both.

I do want to echo what so many other senators, Democrats and Republicans, stated today, which was, you are all very well qualified. This is a very serious panel of distinguished public servants, we appreciate that, and we look forward to your continued service for our nation. And we want to thank you again for your decades of service that you have already provided to the United States of America.


Commitment to Visit Alaska in New Roles

SULLIVAN: I want to begin with my opening question, and I ask all nominees, which is, will you commit to coming to the great state of Alaska with me to see what Billy Mitchell, the father of the U.S. Air Force called the most strategic place in the world? Can I get a commitment from each of you to do that, even though I know you've all been there before. This is a new commitment as part of your new job. Ambassador?

BRAITHWAITE:  Senator, as we discussed yesterday, I look forward to going back to Adak with you. 

SULLIVAN:  Excellent.

ANDERSON:  Yes, Senator.

SULLIVAN:  General?

BROWN:  Yes, Senator. 

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