WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, during a hearing of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV) questioned Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III and General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the Department of Defense budget request for fiscal year 2022. Rosen asked about the critical MQ-9 mission at Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base and about protecting deployed U.S. troops from Iranian-backed militias. A transcript of the Senator’s exchange can be found below, and a video of the Senator’s exchange can be found here.
ROSEN: Thank you, Chairman Reed, Ranking Member Inhofe, for holding this hearing. I’d like to thank the witnesses for your service to our great nation. Thank you for being here today. You know, right before the break, Senator Cramer was talking to you about our ISR requirements and his concerns, and I am concerned as well about the MQ-9. So, Secretary Austin, the MQ-9 Reaper, I don’t have to tell you, is critical to supporting our current intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) requirements.
A key part of the MQ-9 architecture is the mission at Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base. Last year, CENTCOM commander, General McKenzie, included additional MQ-9 funding at the top of his unfunded priorities, and in April, he told this committee of the MQ-9’s importance and his need for more of them, not fewer.
The Air Force today still lacks the ISR capacity to meet Combatant Commanders’ requirements contained in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Despite this, the Department has previously proposed cutting this platform – their most cost-effective – without a program of record to replace it, which would further risk widening the ISR capability gap General Milley talked about.
So, Secretary Austin, what is the Department’s plan for the MQ-9? And given its importance, cost effectiveness, and the requirement from Combatant Commanders for more ISR assets, why has the Air Force cut funding for this program without a program of record to replace it?
AUSTIN: Thank you, Senator. I think you heard General Milley talk earlier about the way Combatant Commanders view ISR. Having been a Combatant Commander in a former life, I can tell you I agree with him. There is never enough ISR. I will always want more. The Air Force has committed to taking off a number of lines of ISR, but they’re not reducing the tails, the aircraft that go with those lines. What they’re doing is making sure they upgrade and modernize their aircraft where possible and so that they can network the aircraft better. So, the number of tails is not being reduced. The number of lines is being reduced slightly.
ROSEN: And so, can you get to us some information about that so we know what the program of record will be going forward and how it can impact us?
ROSEN: Thank you. I appreciate that. I’d like to move on to talking a little bit about Iranian aggression, how we combat that, because Iranian-backed militias, of course, are increasingly targeting U.S. installations and our service members in Iraq via rocket and drone attacks. Iran continues to be the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and a threat to U.S., allied interests all across the world via its ballistic missile program and its support for terrorist proxies like Hezbollah, Hamas, KH, AAH, and many others. And so, according to the recently released Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, and I quote, “Iranian-supported Iraqi Shia militias will continue to pose the primary threat to U.S. personnel in Iraq.”
Secretary Austin and General Milley, with the constant threat to U.S. and coalition forces in the Middle East, posed by Iran and Iranian-backed militia groups, what are we doing to counter them, and how are we proactively protecting our forces and personnel?
Do we have what we need to do that and prevent them, prevent these militias and terrorists from targeting our U.S. troops in the region?
AUSTIN: We certainly continue to demand that Iran cease its malicious behavior in the region, in terms of its support of the Iranian-backed Shia militia groups, and we demand that they cease providing them, you know, modernized equipment so that they can conduct these kinds of attacks. We’re doing everything within our power, within our capability to make sure that our troops that are forward-deployed have adequate protection. We’re engaging the Iraqi leadership to make sure the Iraqi leadership does what’s necessary to protect, help protect our citizens who are there to help the Iraqi government.
MILLEY: So I would say, in addition to everything the Secretary said, is think offense-defense.
So in terms of defense, the force protection of the force, the disposition of exactly where they’re at, how many they’re at, what’s the hardening of those sites, we’re doing all of those measures. In addition to that, we have missile, not missile defense, but air defense capabilities, C-RAMs, counter rocket and mortar, and counter UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) systems that were put in place. Those have been proven quite effective actually against some of the Shia militia group capabilities. We’re going to continue to reinforce all of that.
On the offense side, I won’t discuss it here, but I can discuss it in some detail in a classified session as to what we can do, what we’re prepared to do and what we have already done. All of that in combination, we think, is mitigating the risk. It certainly doesn’t reduce it to zero. It’s a dangerous environment, we all recognize that. But we’ve got to continue to work by, with and through the Iraqi government because they’re the first line of defense for the protection of our forces in their country.
ROSEN: Well, thank you. I just want to be sure that we have assets on the ground to defend American installations in Iraq and Syria, and other places in the Middle East.
MILLEY: We do. We absolutely do.
ROSEN: Thank you.