Howard “Buck” McKeon is a two-term Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and current Chairman of the McKeon Group. He served as representative for California’s 25th District from 1993 to 2015. Pi Praveen, a Policy Fellow at Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), spoke with McKeon at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, earlier this month about the U.S. energy and national security outlook in an age of accelerated domestic oil and gas production and dwindling military investment.
Praveen: What are the threats you see forthcoming to the free flow of oil given current geopolitical climate, especially given the ebb and flow of ISIS’ actions and the proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
McKeon: Most of China’s oil and most of Japan’s oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz. You’ve got a problem there. Iran has these little fast boats that run around the area. They threaten to shut that off and it could be done fairly easily. It’s a critical point for us to be able to counter that threat and be able to assure our friends and allies around the world that it will remain open. There are about seven critical points around the world that our Navy has kept free since World War II. Ninety-six percent of our commerce travels on the sea. If you let any of those points shut down, it’s very critical. We have the ability given the oil, the oil reserves and natural gas that we have—that we’re not as dependent—but China, Japan, they’re totally dependent. They’re good trade partners and people that we need to help. So I think it’s important that we keep those lanes open.
As far as our current military capabilities go, are we lacking anywhere in the force-power we have to protect those seven critical points? Where does that refocusing and reinvestment need to go as we move forward with the way we prepare our armed forces?
We’re spending about $100 billion less on our military than we should be, based on our history. Sequestration and other things have caused a real problem. Some things we continue to spend the money on, but we have not bought sufficient weapons. Even more critical is our readiness—we’re ready to go, we have troops in place, there’s nobody that can beat us around the world—what happens is if we reduce our readiness, we lose more people and that’s not acceptable. We need to put more money to rebuild our readiness. We’ve got the first line troops. It’s the back-up troops that come along that aren’t trained sufficiently to get the maximum out of their efforts and get them the maximum possibility of returning home safely.
Can you speak specifically to the force-power we’ll need, for example in the Navy—the number of ships we’ll need moving forward—to ensure that we continue to meet a basic standard of preparedness?
Our Navy is the smallest it’s been for 100 years. Our Air Force is the smallest it’s been since it was established. Our Army is the smallest it’s ever been since the start of World War II. Those things are all well known, and you have to build those forces up. We talked about readiness. As you draw down the forces, we lose the sergeants, majors, non-coms, people that have been trained for 10-15 years and know how to lead. They’re gone. You can’t rebuild in a year. It takes 10 years to get ten years’ experience. We’ve done those kinds of things time after time after time. During World War II, we were sending men into battle that were ill-prepared, ill-equipped, ill-led, and it was just to buy time, just to fill a gap till we could build up. Vietnam was a slow, slow process but it still cost us heavily there as we learned how to fight that kind of war. And now in the Middle East, we’ve been fighting our longest war ever and people have been deployed time after time after time. It wears on them and it wears on their families. I’m really happy about the appointment of General Mattis [for Defense Secretary]. If we take the tone that we’re going to be serious, that you don’t fight with one hand tied behind your back or with two hands tied behind your back, that if you’re going to war, you’re going to go to win. And do it decisively. That’s been his mantra and I hope that the President puts him in and lets him do what needs to be done.
Let’s switch gears a little. You alluded to some of the domestic oil and gas production that we have here at home that can help bolster our energy security. With the fracking and shale revolution, do you think that this could in the future allow the resources we assign to protecting the free flow of oil to other areas of our defense that might need them?
I think that’s going to take some time and evaluation because we’re underutilized and under-forced everywhere. The Navy, under Reagan, so not that many years ago, had 600 ships but now has up to 70, the goal seems to be what can we do to do we get back up to 300. That’s just half of what we had under Reagan. Granted, the ships are more powerful, but they still haven’t learned how to be in two places at the same time. The Pacific is very large, it takes time to move across it and you have a pivot to the Pacific. I was meeting with the Commander of PACOM a few years ago and he said, “The Pacific is so large, people just look at it—you know, thinking it’s just a nice beach—but it’s large enough to put every continent on Earth inside and have room leftover for another Africa and Australia.” It’s a big, big area. To move a ship from point A to point B just takes time. So we need more ships, we need more people, we need more and newer planes—we’re putting guys in planes that are getting parts in museums to keep them in the air. We’ve got lots of demands, lots of needs.
To end with, will domestic oil and gas production be the key to ensuring U.S. energy security for at least the next couple of decades? That is, if we fulfill some of the needs you mentioned.
We have the resources and we can do it. What we need is the will. Apparently, the President-elect has the will. Now we’ll see if he can get the support and do the things he needs. We have many nay-sayers that want to stop and they say “Don’t drill for more oil, don’t drill for more gas, use just renewables for everything.” Well, renewables provide for less than 5-10 percent of our energy. We can’t build nuclear—with nuclear we’d get about 20 percent. France has about 80 percent. We’ve been using nuclear on our submarines and our aircraft carriers very safely for years. I was at an event last night with Gen. Moseley and he said when he was the Chief of Staff of the Air Force he tried to take a power plant from a submarine and use it for a military base. It would have been very safe, secure and could provide all the power for the base but politically he couldn’t get it done. You know, people talk about wanting clean energy, and nuclear is very clean, but they’re scared of a movie we saw years ago. That is, the bombs that were dropped in World War II. But it would be very good, very efficient, very clean and it would be a great way to go. We don’t have the desire yet to do that, but we could.