WATCH: Sen. Kelly Speaks with Joint Chief of Staff Chair Nominee on Key National Defense Priorities

Yesterday, during a Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing on the nomination of Air Force General Charles Q. Brown Jr. to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Arizona Senator and Navy combat veteran Mark Kelly spoke with Brown on several key national security priorities.   

As Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Airland Subcommittee, which oversees Army, Air Force, and National Guard and Reserve planning and operations, Kelly asked General Brown to retain critical servicemember expertise and input as we modernize the military’s close air support capabilities, and also commit to focusing on the U.S. merchant marine fleet. Kelly highlighted that if these shortcomings are not addressed, the U.S. will remain at a strategic disadvantage, including in the Indo-Pacific theater against potential adversaries like China.  

Click here to watch the exchange. See below for a complete transcript of his remarks. 

Sen. Kelly speaks on the importance of investing in merchant marine fleets and close air support capabilities during a Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing

Sen. Kelly questions Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair nominee and Air Force General Charles Q. Brown Jr.:  

Sen. Kelly: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. General Brown, thank you for your decades of service, and welcome. I wanted to talk to you about our military’s close air support capability [CAS]. We’ve discussed this issue a number of times and you know how important this is to me. You know that our ground troops and special operators depend on this capability and it’s often a life-or-death matter for them. You and I have talked through some of the current planning that the Air Force is doing to transition to a future CAS capability. In my view, the design of our close air support needs to stay centered on the guys on the ground. 

General, how will you achieve this same level of protection for those troops with future CAS solutions? How are we going to avoid any kind of a gap? 

Gen. Brown: Senator, I appreciate the question. As we talked in your office a couple of months ago, it’s the aspect of not only the platforms that we operate, it’s the technology that we use—to still be able to use the basic tactics, techniques, and procedures we’ve used since we started doing close air support. It’s the aspect of providing that capability, the dialogue, and being able to move information electronically to be more responsive while at the same time having weapons that are highly precise to support our servicemembers on the ground. 

Sen. Kelly: One of my concerns is F-35s, which are multi-mission and have a lot of capability in the airplane. I just ask that you continue to focus on this as an important mission for future fighters, including the F-35. I’m also concerned about the personnel that support our CAS community as we transition to these new platforms. Are there any plans to transition some of the skill sets that reside in our tactical air control and JTAC [joint terminal attack controller] community today? 

Gen Brown: There are. We’re using their capability to help us in our command and control as well as making sure that the procedures that we already have we do not let atrophy. One thing I’d like to highlight for you on the F-35 is that many of our A-10 pilots that have a lot of CAS background are flying F-35s. As a matter of fact, I just met a captain this past week who was just converted from the A-10 into the F-35. Those are the kinds of things we’ve got to continue to do to ensure we do not let the skill sets we have atrophy.  

Sen. Kelly: It’s a positive thing now but when we look at a decade from now, you’re not going to have that same kind of transition, so I encourage you to continue to focus on this and make sure we retain the unique expertise of other groups–not just pilots–but the tactical air controllers and JTACs.  

I want to talk about another issue. I’m the only graduate of the US Merchant Marine Academy in Congress, as far as I know, so I pay special attention to our nation’s maritime strength. We talked a little bit about that when Senator Gillibrand asked her questions. I’m concerned that the US investment is falling dramatically behind what the Chinese government has invested in terms of the size and modernization of each of our respective merchant fleets. Since the 1980s there have been a series of policy decisions that have brought us down to a rather startling figure of just 80 US-flagged vessels operating in international trade. Just 60 of those consist of MARAD’s [U.S. Maritime Administration] Maritime Security Program that allows them to contract US-flagged vessels during times of war.  

So we have 80 ships. The Chinese have over 5,500. They are the world’s top shipbuilder, and they control ports that handle 67% of the world’s shipping containers. As you know well, this impacts our ability to supply our own troops in conflict. You talked about how much different the western Pacific is from Europe in terms of islands, mobility, and logistical challenges. It also impacts trade and global supply chains in peacetime. It’s critical. This is the kind of capability that can’t be turned on and off overnight. We need to invest now if we want to rely on it tomorrow. I know in your new role there is a chance you’re going to need this capability.  

We also see some similar underinvestment in the US Merchant Marine Academy, which is under the Department of Transportation purview, but it trains a lot of military officers and the mariners who will man those ships. Our nation’s national security leaders cannot turn a blind eye to these capabilities simply because they lie outside of the military’s–and your–immediate jurisdiction. I think we really need to increase our focus here. 

If confirmed, can I have your commitment to keep this concern top of mind as you enter into this new role as Chairman? 

Gen. Brown: Senator, if confirmed, you do have my commitment.

Sen. Kelly: Thank you.