A Conversation with Sen. John McCain

NATIONAL GUARD magazine
April 2017

(read online digital version)

Guardsmen ‘Have Proven Themselves'

Sen. John McCain endured more than five years in a brutal prisoner-of-war camp after he was shot down on a combat mission over North Vietnam in 1967. For many, such a test of will and survival would be enough to define their lives. But McCain, 80, went on to carve out one of the most significant Senate careers of the last 40 years, serving now as the chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee.

He is also one of Washington’s leading news-makers. The Arizona Republican has been a fixture on the Sunday morning talk shows for years, making headlines with an independent streak that sometimes puts him at odds with many in his party.

McCain entered the Senate in 1987 after two terms in the House. He twice ran for president, losing the Republican nomination in 2000 to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000 and in the 2008 general election to then-Sen. Barack Obama from Illinois. He has since won re-election to the Senate in 2010 and 2016, facing down an opponent from the right in the Republican primary each time.

He has also written several books, including Faith of My Fathers, which recounts his life as the son and grandson of Navy admirals, his time at the U.S. Naval Academy and his career as a Navy pilot, including his time in Vietnam and as a prisoner of war.

McCain recently penned a white paper entitled “Restoring American Power” that proposes significant increases in military spending and has received wide attention.

NATIONAL GUARD requested this interview early last month. His office responded promptly and scheduled it for just three days later—remarkable dispatch for a man in such high demand.

You authored a blueprint for upgrading the military and recalibrating the defense strategy called “Restoring American Power.” How damaged is the U.S. military and how did it get this way?

I think the military is very damaged. More than two-thirds of the [Navy] F-18s cannot fly. Two of the [Army’s] 60 combat brigades are at the highest level of readiness. Air Force, Navy and Marine pilots are flying fewer hours per month than their Chinese and Russian counterparts. The Air Force has a 1,000-pilot shortfall. There will be a significant exodus of military pilots as the airlines retire their Vietnam-era pilots and recruit additional pilots.

Morale has been harmed by this lack of ability to train and operate. Retention has been harmed by people who have had to go on five or six deployments.

So the legacy of eight years of [President Barack] Obama is a 21-percent reduction in defense spending and a military that in the words of uniformed leaders’ testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee have put the lives of men and women serving in uniform, both active duty and [National] Guard, at “greater risk.” That’s their words. At greater risk. Don’t we owe those men and women something better than putting their lives at greater risk?

Let me add one additional comment. This has placed additional demands and requirements on our Guard forces, who now function with the same effectiveness and capability as our active-duty forces. There is literally no difference.

Is the National Guard’s capability a result of the last 15 years of war and the need to send them overseas time and again?

I think it has come from, one, a greater reliance on them, and, two, a better understanding and, therefore, training and equipment by the Congress of the United States. And frankly, they have proven themselves. They have proven themselves as having the same capabilities and dedication that our active-duty forces display every day.

Is there a role for the Guard to play in rebuilding and repairing the military?

The Guard, like the active component, is tired. And their equipment is tired. They need money to train. They need new equipment. And they need over time a reduction in their deployment schedule which is inordinately heavy.

Your blueprint talks about a budget of $640 billion. Will that do it? Where does that money go?

It will do it for the first year. But we need to have a small but measureable increase in spending for the following years. We’ve got the [nuclear] triad that needs to be refurbished. We’ve got the submarines. We have got the new bomber. We’ve got a number of new requirements that require funding, including replacing a lot of the aging equipment that is now in the Guard.

We can’t talk about the budget without talking about sequestration, which cuts the federal budget across the board without regards to individual programs and has caused much of the problems you are talking about.

I’d like to put blame and responsibility on President Obama, but Congress has been a willing accomplice as we enacted the mindless, meat-ax sequestration which has had draconian effects on our military, our readiness, their retention and their capabilities.

We should have gotten rid of it a long time ago. The problem is that Republicans want increases in defense spending. The Democrats will support increases in defense spending only if you have increases in non-defense spending. My opinion of that view is that it has very upside-down priorities.

What do you mean by that?

Because with the state of the world today in chaos, greater challenges than any time in the last 70 years, our priority should not be the EPA or IRS. Our priority should be the ability to defend this nation and the challenges we face. By the way, that also includes the CIA, FBI, a number of intelligence agencies, the Department of Homeland Security. It isn’t just strictly Defense.

You said we face greater challenges than at any time in 70 years. That includes the Cold War. How are these times more dangerous than the Cold War?

The Cold War was a clear competition between the United States and the then-Soviet Union. The stakes could not have been higher because of the risk of a nuclear exchange. In the case of today’s environment, we have radical Islamic extremism. We have the rise of China. We have the Russian behavior. We have 6 million refugees out of Syria. We have 400,000, at least, killed.

We see Vladimir Putin establishing Russia in a major role in the Middle East. We see China in gross violation of international law filling in islands in the South China Sea.

In other words, the world is in a degree of chaos. I think you could make an argument that in the days of the Cold War, it was more immediately dangerous because of the risk of a nuclear exchange. Today, you have a myriad of different challenges globally that all require different strategies and different responses and different capabilities.

How often do you see members of the National Guard and what do they tell you?

I see them all the time. One of my sons [James] is a member of the Arizona National Guard. They tell me they need more training. They tell me that they are proud. They tell me that they have excellent morale. As a former Marine, [my son] is very proud of their level of professionalism. He also tells me they are over-stressed in many ways. Multiple deployments. Time away from home. He also states clearly that they are very proud and very capable.

Is the answer to the tired force that you mentioned earlier and the multiple deployments to fill the ranks with more people?

It’s not so much more people although certainly they are short in some areas. But, frankly, it is a situation which requires us to reduce the need for their deployments. For example, Afghanistan after 15 years is now a stalemate. That means we didn’t have a strategy to win. If we had succeeded in Afghanistan, we would not be asking these brave Guard members to deploy there.

The strain on the Guard is a symptom of our inability to bring these crises under control. We never should have pulled everybody out of Iraq. We would not be asking Guard members to go to Iraq today if we had left a residual force there. Leading from behind doesn’t work.

And now we are deploying people to Europe because of Russia’s behavior.

The European Reassurance Initiative has been greatly successful. But that brings me to really one of the important programs and this is the [National Guard State Partnership Program], particularly in Eastern Europe. It has been incredibly successful. It has built relationships. It has so many benefits. It’s one of the outstanding programs that we have in all of the military today.

The chief of the National Guard Bureau has been a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for five years. How is it working?

Fine. When you look at the amount of contribution the Guard makes to our nation’s defense, then it is an appropriate role.

Legislation has been introduced in the Senate that removes the unequal compensation between active-component and the reserve component when reserve-component members mobilize under 12304b. Should that be passed and will it be passed?

It’s right now in the jurisdiction of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, so we’ll be talking to [Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.] and [Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.] on this issue. But, frankly, we have not encroached on their jurisdiction yet. But we will continue our conversations.

Your background includes the Naval Academy. You were a Navy pilot, the son and grandson of admirals, and time spent as a POW in Vietnam. How does all of that shape your thinking on the Senate Armed Services Committee?

My experiences have obviously been very important as far as shaping my overall views. But I also have to say that my views are now far more affected by information, the hearings, the interaction we have with the military and the Guard that informs most of my decisions. In other words, I have a basic background with knowledge of the military and military history. But the majority of my decisions are made by the facts as they are presented by the military, both civilian and uniform, to the Armed Services Committee in the process of our hearings.

You were in combat, of course, yet you still support an active role for troops on the ground. Does your combat experience give you any hesitation in having that view?

Yes and no. Yes because I saw the same kind of micromanagement of military and their actions in both Iraq and Afghanistan that I saw under [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara [in Vietnam]. I saw a strategy that had no blueprint for victory in Afghanistan and Iraq when they pulled everybody out. I have seen some historic parallels in the micromanagement from some would-be poet in the White House and the National Security Council, which parallels that of McNamara and the Whiz Kids. So I do see those parallels and I have learned those lessons of history.

That’s why I’m very optimistic about this new national security team which has been assembled by President [Donald] Trump. You’ve got [Lt. Gen. H.R.] McMaster, one of the brightest military tacticians I know [as national security advisor]. Gen. [James] Mattis as defense secretary. [Former] Sen. Dan Coats, who is director of national intelligence, is highly respected by all of us. [Retired Gen. John F.] Kelly is Homeland Security secretary. He’s outstanding.

I guarantee you that none of those individuals that I just mentioned would stand for the kind of micromanaging that have characterized the last eight years.

Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel is the chief of the National Guard Bureau. His father, Lt. Col. Lauren Lengyel, was a POW in Vietnam. Do you know him?

I know his father very well. His father was one of the great resisters in the POW experience. His father is a genuine national hero.