Congressman Don Bacon (R) serves the 2nd District of Nebraska, sitting on the House Armed Services, Homeland Security, and Agriculture committees. Prior to his election to the House in 2016, he spent nearly 30 years in the U.S. Air Force, retiring as a Brigadier General. During his career in the Air Force, Congressman Bacon specialized in electronic warfare, intelligence, reconnaissance, and public affairs. He served 16 assignments including four deployments overseas, three of which were in the Middle East, including one assignment to Iraq in 2007 to 2008 during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. inFOCUS Editor Shoshana Bryen met with him in early December.
inFOCUS: You have warned over time about readiness, and the problems that lapses in readiness cause, including the recent KC-130 accident that killed five Marines. What would you say is the current state of readiness in the U.S. military; where do we need more inputs, and what do we need to do first?
Rep. Bacon: We have both a readiness problem and a modernization problem. If we back up, it started with the “peace dividend” that we “received” in 1989-90, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when we thought we could reduce defense spending. Then, after Desert Storm , we were so dominant that we thought we could cut more. We were second to none. Nobody was close – that was the mindset. Then, after 9/11, Congress plussed-up spending, but it went toward counter terrorism operations and training, not to countering a near-peer competitor. Then in 2010, we went into sequester as a budget cutting tool.
The military said “If we do sequester, we want to cut weapons systems or bases.” Congress said no. So, we forced the military to cut operations and training, which hurts readiness. Two years ago, when I came into Congress, we had the lowest readiness level since 1977. Half the Navy aircraft couldn’t fly. Of 58 combat brigades in the army, only three were ready to deploy to Korea or wherever they were assigned; 55 were not. Our fighter pilots are getting about 40 percent of the flight time that they should have been getting. Nothing like we were getting in the 1990s.
If you put all that together, we had a tremendous readiness problem. We also had over a 20-year hole in modernization. That’s what we’ve got to get out of, these two things. The military had cut 18 percent since 2010. Last year we plussed it up by 10 percent, so we bought back 60 percent of the reductions from the sequester, and now we’re trying to hold it even with inflation. You can’t just get out of the readiness hole or modernization hole overnight. Readiness is going to take another couple of years at this rate to be healthy. Modernization is going to take perhaps 10 years.
That’s what we’re dealing with right now. We can’t buy ourselves out of this overnight, we also have a budget issue, and the deficit. I think we’re at the right spot for slowly getting healthy.
iF: Secretary Mattis said this week that the White House was going to resist any effort to cut the defense budget in the next cycle. Do you think that will carry, or do you think there’s enough pressure from Congress to start reducing again?
Rep. Bacon: My position is we can’t cut it. We have to stick with what we have plus inflation; that’s what will get us healthy on readiness and, over time, on modernization, which will take longer. I think it would be a mistake. I know Chairman [Mac] Thornberry wants to stay with the plan, budget plus inflation. To do otherwise will hurt readiness, or hurt modernization.
The problem is, I can’t promise what the Democrat side will do on this. I think the new Chairman of the HASC [House Armed Services Committee] wants to reduce the top line. I think that’s a mistake. Our job is to do our best to not let that happen. Thankfully we have the Senate.
iF: You mentioned Mr. Thornberry, who is an advocate of Space Command. How do you feel about space command, and where does it fit in your thinking about modernization?
Rep. Bacon: I support a Space Command-like model. To do a full separate service for space would be difficult, because there are only 20,000 space operators. The Marines are the next smallest service and they’re 90 times bigger. It doesn’t make sense to make a totally seprate sixth service. We need to do something different for three reasons.
• First, Space is now a war fighting domain, so we need to be organized to win in that theater. We have to dominate that domain for ourselves and our allies to win a war, just like we have to do with air, sea, and ground, cyber and electronic magnetic spectrum.
• Second, we have duplicate acquisition lines that we need to consolidate. We shouldn’t have four different space offices – we need to stop that.
• Third, and this goes back to the point about a war-fighting domain, we need a space war-fighting culture. I come from the Air Force, I love it, but it is still primarily a fighter pilot culture, and we have to do something in the Air Force to grow a space war-fighting culture, just like the fighter pilot. We have to get to where the Navy’ is where aviators, surface operators, and submariners have equal shot to be the CNO [Chief of Naval Operations]. You don’t see that on the Air Force side; they have to evolve to where the Navy is.
What I would recommend is something like SOCOM [Special Operations Command]. SOCOM is a separate combatant command with its own funding line and it has a lot of its own culture. We need to go that way with space command as well.
iF: I want to talk about China You’ve said that under some circumstances, we can have a productive relationship with China. What needs to happen to get there? How do we deal with China and the South China Sea? Under what conditions can our relationship with China improve?
Rep. Bacon: We do not want to be enemies with China. That would be bad for China and America, and the rest of the world. But China gets a vote in this, in how they respond to things like the South China Sea and other areas of the world. They could be more helpful with North Korea as well. China has a vote, do they want to have a more cooperative relationship and a partnership? We have to engage, but we have to be alert to what is China doing. China can’t just say the South China Sea is theirs. Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Taiwan – our allies – have a voice in their part of the world and China can’t see them as vassal states.
China has a bit of that culture that they see neighboring countries as being, or should be vassal states, but no, they’re our allies. We want to protect that. We have to see how China responds. If they try to be good partners in the world, of course, they’re going to be worried about their own priorities, and I understand that, but we’d like to see them embrace more of our values of human liberty, the various freedoms that we protect especially freedom of religion. We see people of faith being persecuted, Muslims and Christians, right now. I hope China moderates to where we have a cooperative partnership, whether it’s in trade or in how we work in the international arena. We have to see them do it in trade, too. They have barriers, they’re stealing intellectual property, they have predatory economic policies of buying our businesses, taking the technology, and acquiring it. They’re not fair business partners right now, and we can’t let that continue without a reaction from us.
iF: Then comes the question of cyber spying and cyber warfare. The Pentagon still buys computers and other systems from China and with Chinese parts. Why do we do that?
Rep. Bacon: They should not be. I think we’re moving away from it. We’re very concerned that there could be backdoor software that will enable them into our systems. You can’t buy an F-35 [fighter plane] and have Chinese-made computer chips in there. That’s a recipe for disaster. So, we have to make sure that we have integrity in our computer systems and software on our military systems. There is a focus on making sure that we’re buying, and I know this first hand. If we know things are from China we encourage folks in the National Security arena to buy from certain companies because we know that they check.
iF: Could you imagine a “Buy American” policy?
Rep. Bacon: Yes, or “Buy Allied.” I think particularly when it comes to software, computers, to do that from Russia or China makes no sense. I’ll give you a related example. Our bases in Europe are using Russian energy right now, natural gas. It’s a mistake because they can just turn off their gas and the bases are vulnerable. Precisely those bases that we will need in a time of crisis – which will probably be with Russia. So we have to have a smarter policy. We should not be reliant on Russian gas in Europe for U.S. bases.
Another example, we know the Russians are in our energy grid. I don’t know about the Chinese at this point, but the Russians are. So we have to be working to build a resilience in our energy grid.
iF: What do you mean “in the energy grid”?
Rep. Bacon: They want to have the ability to turn off certain sectors of our energy in a time of crisis, which would cause rolling blackouts. I can only say that now because the administration released that at an unclassified level but we’ve known it for a while. That goes for Russia, not China, but if the Russians are doing that the Chinese could possibly try to do the same thing. We should be buying smartly when it comes to our weapons systems.
iF: The next question was actually about Russia and whether Russian behavior in Europe might necessitate larger bases, more bases, more soldiers.
Rep. Bacon: If budget wasn’t a concern, I would say yes, we need to have more presence in Europe. I would support what Poland’s asking for, which is a NATO ground armored unit in their country. It would be smart because I think it is a deterrent. They’re on the front lines with a revisionist Russia right now. I do think we need to expand the presence because we need to ensure that we have a strong deterrent. Having a presence in Poland and the Baltics shows commitment to them, which improves deterrence.
iF: Now we have a new situation in Ukraine between the Black Sea and the Azov Sea. They’re not in NATO. They’re not an ally and they’re not a treaty partner. What are our choices in the face of Russian aggression?
Rep. Bacon: Russia actually made a terrible mistake in Ukraine. Ukraine had been a fifty-fifty country where they wanted to be in between alignment with Russia and the United States. Moscow attacking Crimea and taking it and the Donetsk region – the Russian-populated areas – Ukraine now is, I think, very strongly wedded to the West and the United States. You can guarantee that Ukraine will be very much more aligned with us from here on out. Russian policy is doing the opposite of what they wanted. If you ask me, it’s a mistake.
I think for Ukraine, we’re going to have to work with them to figure out what can we do with weapons and training to help them out. The previous administration was sending them MRE’s [Meals Ready-to-Eat]. I thought we should be sending them anti-tank missiles and I supported the anti-tank missiles that this administration sent. I also think we should be working in other areas. It would be a mistake right now to talk about NATO because they’re in a state of war with Russia, but we could surely help make them more proficient.
Russia had a treaty with Ukraine in which they pledged to honor their borders if Kiev gave up its nuclear weapons. Moscow has walked all over that treaty. It’s unacceptable. I think that that is our green light to do much more with Ukraine to support them.
iF: I’d like to raise Iran and North Korea. We’ve tried to make inroads with North Korea, maybe in some ways we have. What should we do?
Rep. Bacon: The president and the secretary of state did the right thing in meeting with Kim Jong Un. But in the end, we haven’t seen tangible results, just a lot of talk. So, we should maintain sanctions on the regime until things change. On the other hand, the dialogue has lowered the temperature. That’s good, because a year ago it was something else. I talked to General [Mark] Milley [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], and it was scary to hear how close we were and really what a war with North Korea would entail. They have biological weapons, nerve agents, and on an unclassified level, an estimated 60 nuclear weapons. It would be ugly – an estimated million people, primarily civilians, killed in a war. So I’m glad the temperature has gone down.
But we have to realize they’ve not done anything tangible on their nuclear program. So we need to keep the sanctions on and not back off.
iF: And Iran?
Rep. Bacon: Iran is what scares me most. We haven’t had a nuclear weapon drop in anger since 1945. If there is one in the next 10 or 15 years, the most likely scenario is with Iran. If they build nuclear weapons and add to their missile capability, Israel will not stand on the sidelines. Not with an Iran that’s pledged to annihilate it.
We have to do everything in our power right now to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. I supported pulling out of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the “Iran deal”]. It was a mistake. The Obama administration gave $100-150 billion to the world’s largest exporter of terror and strengthened it based on a promise with a sunset clause that allowed it to become a recognized nuclear state in a decade. It was a mistake. We have not seen Iran back off at all, their terrorism, their presence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, you name it. It’s a very scary place. Not immediately, but in 10 years I could see that being the world’s biggest flashpoint.
iF: They’ve been having demonstrations for a year now all across Iran. Do you think they can change their government? I’m NOT suggesting we overthrow it.
Rep. Bacon: I don’t know. Obviously, we would love to see that regime gone; the Iranian people deserve better. When you look at polling from Iran, they are the people in the region most favorably inclined toward the West, but they have the worst government – a theocracy based on Shite extremism. It would be an answered prayer if their government was overthrown. But you’re right, it has to come from the Iranians.
iF: Do we support the Iranian people? How do we let them know we’re on their side?
Rep. Bacon: We do support them. I’m not too sure what the best policy is. We overthrew Saddam in Iraq and then we pulled the rug out from under the Shia down south. So we have to be careful about over-promising. We surely stand by them with moral support, information. I think we keep the economic clamps on Tehran so that we cut down on their trade. I just co-sponsored a bill today that will punish banks that do business with Iran, even in Europe. So we have to choke them and weaken them. But I know that often hurts the people, but in the end our goal, our hope is that the people do get rid of that government.
iF: Back to the United States. You’re on the Homeland Security Committee. What would you say keeps you up at night?
Rep. Bacon: The worst terrorist attack obviously was imported here from Afghanistan by al-Qaeda, which is why it’s important that we not let the Taliban win in Afghanistan. We have to maintain a presence there, a minimal presence, to ensure that the Taliban doesn’t take over. There is some terror that can come from the outside – we have evidence of some Sudanese extremists trying to come through our southern border, through Brazil. We’re working that. But day-to-day, the bigger threat is homegrown extremism. People become radicalized. Second generation people who are radicalized in ways their parents were not.
It’s a minority, a small minority. We have always to clarify that, 99 percent are not people who wish harm on America; we’re talking about a small minority. But they can do real damage. There are some who are radicalized through the Internet, or maybe it’s an outlier mosque.
We have an outside threat and an inside threat. We know terrorists are trying to come here from the Middle East every day. Every day, they’re somewhere in the pipeline. We have to talk about the ideology that does that and try to figure out how do we undermine the process of radicalization.
iF: What about groups like Antifa? That’s not terrorism as we normally define it.
Rep. Bacon: What concerns me is that they say they’re anti-Nazi, but they use fascist techniques – threatening violence against people and trying to shut down free speech. They use the same techniques that they decry. They’re a violent group, but I wouldn’t call them a terrorist group yet. I just think they’re repugnant.
This may be an aside, but I think in politics we need to be more respectful with each other. We can agreeably disagree, but what I hear right now is the other side of the aisle [Democrats] will typically call us fascist, Nazi, and it’s wrong. Actually, it’s not really an aside, because the Antifa movement plays into that. Both sides of our government, Republicans and Democrats, have to raise the bar – I’m talking more about the Democrats, but Republicans have to do the same thing. We have to be more respectful.
iF: As an Air Force veteran, can you address providing the care our veterans need when we’re talking about budget cuts? How do we make sure that they get what they need, including long-term care?
Rep. Bacon: We have to say up front, VA has had an increase in funding the last two years and it is one area that’s had bipartisan support on the Hill. And the doctors and nurses are committed individuals.
However, the bureaucracy is out of date. It shouldn’t take months and months to pay a private doctor who sees a veteran under the Choice Act [rather than the vet going to a VA hospital]. It’s not right. We’re going to have to restore a functioning bureaucracy in the VA that knows how to pay bills on time, that does electronically transferable records. When I talk to our local VA, they’re snail-mailing records and reports to Florida, and they have to wait for the papers to be mailed back. They’re technologically in the 1950’s and 60’s.
I support choice for veterans, rather than making them go to VA facilities that are sometime far away or inconvenient. Choice will help them, but I’m pretty sure you have to pay the doctors on time.
But the fact also is that our VA is suffering from a medical problem that our country as a whole is having. Cost. Costs are going up. I don’t support a government takeover of healthcare, and we have to acknowledge that Obamacare has not worked; it doubled premiums, it’s raised cost. I voted for AHCA [the American Health Care Act], to lower premiums, but we’ve got to find ways to reform and lower cost. What we’re seeing with the VA is a symptom.
We can’t just fix the VA. We have a medical problem in our country and we have to fix it.
iF: Last question. You’re a member of the Bipartisan House Climate Solution Caucus. Can you talk about that?
Rep. Bacon: I actually look at this in terms of our military operations. I was just down in Virginia Beach, at the ports where they were building aircraft carriers and subs. For decades, the water levels have been rising every year, to the point where some ports can’t function. They’re actually having to raise the ports up.
Water levels are rising. Does that mean it’s caused by human activity? There is probably a combination of inputs into this, but the point is the changes are having an impact. I just see it most readily when I talk to the Navy. They have to face the real-life challenge of keeping ports functioning when water levels rise every year.
More broadly, we’re seeing the Arctic Ocean becoming more and more passable; fewer months filled in by ice. We’re seeing some change now. I don’t believe we know how much of that is man-made and how much of it is normal cycles, but there are changes and it’s impacting the military as well.
I take a pragmatic view: our goal is to ensure that our air and water are cleaner than what we received when we started. That our kids are given a cleaner planet. That’s my goal.
iF: Congressman Bacon, on behalf of the members of The Jewish Policy Center and the readers of inFOCUS Quarterly, Thank you.