CABINET HEARING: Kathleen Hicks, Nominee for Deputy Secretary of Defense

February 2, 2021, Committee on Armed Services

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates introduced Hicks and praised her thinking on Syria. Gates lauded Hicks’ work in playing an instrumental role in the signing into law of legislation that ultimately produced recommendations and a real comprehensive strategy to address the conflict in Syria. Gates said it is unfortunate that the American position in Syria changed before many of those recommendations could get implemented. Questions from Senators touched on a variety of topics, including the threats posed by Russia and China, the state of the U.S. military, shipbuilding plans at the Department of Defense (DOD), Syria, and Iran. 

ISSUES RAISED

    • Russia – Multiple Senators pressed Hicks on the threat posed by Russia and what should be done to counter it at DOD. Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) said the greatest threat to U.S. national security comes from China and Russia and praised Hicks for her work on the National Defense Strategy Commission which did a good job laying out the reasons why the U.S. should focus on great power competition. Chairman Inhofe said the nuclear triad is the most significant problem facing the U.S. right now as Russia and China are modernizing and expanding their nuclear forces. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) asked Hicks how large the threat is of Russian expansionism. Hicks said she needs to get into office and look at the threat assessments from Russia to fully answer the question. She noted general areas of concern are quantum computing advancement, hypersonic missile capabilities and technology, and possible challenges to the U.S. asymmetric advantages in the undersea domain. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) asked Hicks how she would rate the threats the U.S. faces, including from Russia. Hicks said there are a few areas where the Russians are still pacing the U.S., particularly in the strategic realm, and that is the key element of how the U.S. needs to think about changing and shifting the force.
    • China – China was at the forefront of the hearing with members of both parties raising questions and calling China the most pressing threat. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) stated that strategic patience was a failed strategy approach under the Obama administration involving North Korea. He asked Hicks if that is a good term to describe the threat from China, adding the challenge and threat is immediate. Hicks stated that the American approach toward China begins with recognizing that they are the pacing challenge for the defense community and present a serious alternative model to be rejected regarding how they govern their society. She added there are opportunities for the U.S. and China to work together, but those are not in the defense realm. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) asked what immediate steps Hicks would take to help DOD build relationships with allies and partners in Southeast Asia and counter China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific. Hicks said as the Deputy Secretary, she will be focused on matters internal to the department, and the Secretary of Defense will be focused on the broader questions of allied approaches. However, she added there is a big opportunity present and there is an openness and interest from partners throughout Asia, including Indonesia and Vietnam. She stated that there is an opportunity to demonstrate that the U.S. is willing to exercise freedom of navigation as well as freedom of error to help them build out their capacity, whether it is in something like health security due to COVID-19 challenges or maritime domain awareness in the South China Sea. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) asked Hicks if China is more or less likely to attempt military action against Taiwan if it knows the U.S. will support Taiwan completely. Hicks said it is less likely. Senator Manchin asked Hicks how she would rate the threats the U.S. faces. Hicks said from a DOD perspective, China is the pacing challenge in all areas.

 

  • Shipbuilding – Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) noted that the FY 2022 shipbuilding plan was just released in December and calls for 405 manned ships by the year 2051. He noted it would add 82 new ships between 2022 and 2026 at a cost of $147 billion. Senator Wicker asked Hicks to give her view on this 30-year shipbuilding plan and what she plans to prioritize with regard to shipbuilding within the DOD. Hicks noted the plan was released by the Trump administration in December and has some interesting operational themes. She said there is a focus on increasing use of autonomy, dispersal of forces, and on growing the number of small surface combatants relative to today. She added there are some things in that unclassified report that are flags. Hicks said that if she is confirmed, she will assess the last document from the Trump administration and make any necessary adjustments. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) asked Hicks to discuss the importance of the navy shipyard infrastructure optimization plan. Hicks said the sustainability of the U.S. fleet is incredibly important. She added that the U.S. fleet needs to have modernized capacity and capability in its naval shipyards. Hicks said she would need to be confirmed to better understand how well the optimization plan is working, but from the outside it appears to be a step in the right direction.

 

  • Iran – Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) asked if Hicks believes that the U.S. ought to be reducing its defense budget when it is dealing with such pressing national security issues like Iran. Hicks said the U.S. can meet the challenges it faces in defense, deliver a strategy driven approach to its defense budget, and still deliver good value to the taxpayer in doing so.

TAKEAWAY

Hicks, the nominee for the number two position at the Pentagon, had a relatively smooth hearing and did not draw many objections from Republicans on the Committee. Chairman Inhofe thanked Hicks for her very impressive testimony and said he is “quite certain” that Hicks will be confirmed and Senators on both sides pledged to support her nomination. If confirmed, Hicks would be the first female Deputy Defense Secretary and bring a well-respected background in defense strategy and policy to the Department. While in the Obama administration, she served as Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Strategy, Plans, and Forces, where she led efforts on the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. 

WHAT’S NEXT?

Hicks’ nomination must be approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee and then for a floor vote in the Senate. Timing is not clear on this yet, particularly given that the Senate is taking up impeachment starting the week of February 8, which could impact scheduling confirmation votes on the Senate floor.