WASHINGTON (CN) – Three men nominated for Defense Department leadership positions volleyed tough questions at the Senate on Tuesday about military-recruitment numbers, described as stagnating at levels unseen since the 1970s.
Addressing the nominees this afternoon at a meeting of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, which he chairs, Sen. John McCain blamed insufficient training and readiness with contributing to making 2017 the deadliest on record for the U.S. Navy since 1989 when an explosion aboard the USS Iowa killed 47 sailors.
This past August, 17 people were killed when the USS John S. McCain collided with a tanker off Singapore. Two months earlier, the USS Fitzgerald crashed into a container ship in June, killing seven.
A statement by the Navy’s Seventh Fleet called the McCain collision “avoidable,” calling it the result of “poor seamanship” along the ship’s highly congested routes. The USS Fitzgerald crash meanwhile was blamed on “flawed watch stander teamwork and inadequate leadership.”
McCain noted this afternoon that there is a simple course of action the Defense Department can take to prevent future disasters.
“I look you in the eye and I tell you – 100-hour work weeks are too long for a young member of the armed forces to work,” the Arizona Republican said. “That has to stop or you’ll see more tragedies.”
McCain assigned some blame for the military’s low recruitment numbers on the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, a 1980 law he described as requiring staff to take on greater workloads, relocate every two to three years and complete coursework on inflexible timelines.
The law was created to groom “every officer into a general or admiral,” said McCain,
“but not every officer wants or needs to be a general or an admiral.”
“We need more variety in military careers,” the senator added.
One of the nominees up for consideration today was Anthony Kurta, whom President Donald Trump tapped to serve as deputy under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness. Kurta, who would be tasked with addressing recruitment issues if confirmed, agreed with McCain that the legislation was outmoded.
McCain, R-Ariz., also emphasized the years under which the Department of Defense has struggled with “small budgets” that are driven by politics over strategy.
He said the department could alleviate some of the pressure it faces by exploring alternative recruitment pools.
One recruitment program, MAVNI, short for the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, has been used by the Defense Department since 2008 to recruit “legal non-immigrants” with specialized skills in health care or interpretation. Those recruited are typically granted citizenship at the end of basic training.
McCain argued that the “up-and-out” philosophy of serving in the military – i.e. receiving promotions until retiring or discharge – doesn’t fully consider the range of competitive civilian opportunities for would-be recruits. This is particularly evident in pilot shortages plaguing the military, he said.
“People who are forced to choose between [getting a job with] the airlines or the Army – their complaint isn’t money,” McCain said. “They just want to fly airplanes, and they’re not able to do that. Sixty percent of the aviation teams aren’t flying.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., pressed Kurta for his take on the department’s consideration of filling the recruitment gap with young immigrants participating in the now-defunct program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Kurta promised he would devise a program that would tap the unique skill sets of DACA beneficiaries but added he would only do so after the department completes review of its lengthy backlog of candidates in MAVNI already.
Full military readiness could be achieved by 2020 or 2021 if overall recruitment goals are met and soon, he said.
John McPherson, nominated for general counsel to the U.S. Army, said his previous experience as a judge advocate general for the U.S. Navy gives him a well-rounded perspective to address training or operational concerns for military lawyers, another career track that is undersold to potential recruits.
McPherson worked on a “litigation pilot program” during his stint at the Navy. The program could easily transfer to the needs of the Army, he said, and if appointed, he promised to focus on it.
“Those in the career path gain tremendous experience both through training and in the courts. To the point they’re rivaling civilian counterparts at the Defense Attorneys office or the Department of Justice,” he said.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. predicted that the military courts will confront a challenge in combining that type of pilot program with a focus on improving the efficacy of sexual-assault and domestic-violence litigation.
“The percentage of cases of sexual assault in the military going to trial is going down,” she said. “Convictions are going down. We aren’t convicting more serial rapists, and one of the ideas for that career track is so that you don’t have people with only one or two years of criminal justice experience trying these very difficult cases.”
Gregory Maggs, nominated as judge of the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces , received very little questioning from lawmakers at Tuesday’s hearing.
The nominee did echo Gillenbrand’s concerns over assault in the military, saying his time working with the military’s special victim’s counsel – which provides legal representation to assaulted service members – made a lasting impression on him and would help guide him as a judge.
“Article 6b of the uniform code of military justice [lists] a large number of rights that victims now have which they previously didn’t, like participating in proceedings on evidentiary matters, or their right to be informed of the outcome of a case,” he said. “Many of these rights would be very difficult for victims to take advantage of if they didn’t have trained or qualified counsel.”
The George Washington University professor is listed as an expert by Federalist Society. He graduated from Harvard Law and clerked for Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy. Maggs also served as an independent consultant to Kenneth Star during the Whitewater investigation.
If confirmed, Maggs will fill the only current vacancy at the court and would join Obama-era appointees Circuit Judges Kevin Ohlson and John Sparks; and George H.W. Bush appointees Circuit Judge Margaret A. Ryan and Chief Judge Scott Stucky.