Nato still enormously helpful to US security, Mattis says

Retired Marine Corps general James Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on his nomination to be the next secretary of defense on Jan 12, 2017.
Retired Marine Corps general James Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on his nomination to be the next secretary of defense on Jan 12, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) remains "enormously" beneficial to US national security, Mr James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for defence secretary, said in answers to a questionnaire from senators weighing his nomination.

"I believe Nato is central to our defence" because "it facilitates European stability and as a military alliance it helps sustain our values", Mr Mattis said in his responses to questions on military policy from the Senate Armed Services Committee, which opened its confirmation hearing Thursday (Jan 12).

The retired general's strong endorsement of the alliance that was formed to counter Soviet aggression during the Cold War may allay concerns about Mr Trump's comment during his presidential campaign that the US may not keep its commitment to defend Nato allies unless they spend more on their military budgets. Still, Mr Mattis said he would press members of the 28-nation alliance to meet their stated goal to spend at least 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence.

"If confirmed, I will also encourage our Nato allies to spend their defence dollars more wisely - with appropriate and agreed shares devoted to procurement, research and development - and to transform their forces," Mr Mattis said.

Mr Mattis's prepared opening statement for the hearing also sent a message aimed at assuaging broader concerns that the US will step back from its leadership in the world.

"We must embrace our international alliances and security partnerships," Mr Mattis said in the statement.

"History is clear: nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither."

Mr Mattis, 66, a retired Marine Corps general and a former head of the US Central Command, agreed with Mr Trump's call to deal more directly with Russia - but with important caveats.

"We engaged with Russia even during the darkest days of the Cold War, and I support the president-elect's desire to engage Russia now," he said.

At the same time, "when we identify other areas where we cannot cooperate, we must confront Russia's behaviour, and defend ourselves if Russia chooses to act contrary to our interests," Mr Mattis said.

He cited "alarming messages from Moscow regarding the use of nuclear weapons; treaty violations; the use of hybrid warfare tactics to destabilise other countries", such as Georgia and Ukraine, "and involvement in hacking and information warfare".

The former Marine was hailed as "one of the finest military officers of his generation and an extraordinary leader who inspires a rare and special admiration of his troops" in a statement after his nomination by Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain of Arizona.

Short and wiry with a brush-cut haircut, Mr Mattis was known as the "Warrior Monk", while Mr Trump likes to use another of his nicknames: "Mad Dog".

Because Mr Mattis has been retired only since 2013, Congress must pass legislation waiving a law that bars appointing anyone as secretary of defence "within seven years after relief from active duty as a commissioned officer".

The Senate Armed Services Committee plans to act on that legislation during Thursday's (Jan 12) hearing, and the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to act on Thursday (Jan 12) as well.

While members of both parties praise Mr Mattis as a skilled and thoughtful military leader, some have expressed concern about exemptions from the law intended to preserve civilian control. Mr Mattis gave a nod in his prepared remarks to the perceived need for the defense secretary to be a civilian.

"Civilian control of the military is a fundamental tenet of the American military tradition," he said.

"Both the commander-in-chief and the secretary of defence must impose an objective strategic calculus in the national security decision-making process and effectively direct its activities."

On other issues raised in the senators' questionnaire:

Nuclear Weapons: Mr Mattis endorsed deploying to Europe the newly upgraded B61 air-dropped nuclear bomb as well as dual-capable F-35 fighters that can drop conventional and nuclear weapons. He agreed to "carefully examine the utility and advisability of" fielding a new nuclear-tipped Long-Range Standoff Weapon to replace the aging AGM-86.

Critical Capabilities: He said the most critical capabilities for the Defence Department to maintain over the next decade were "a robust nuclear deterrent and lethal conventional forces, while ensuring that irregular warfare remains a core capability". The Pentagon also must "enhance its cyber and space-based capabilities".

Bigger Navy: Asked about Trump's goal to increase the Navy's fleet to 350 vessels from about 272 today, Mr Mattis said: "If confirmed, I will work with Congress on all aspects of this issue, including procurement, timing, funding, cost-control and our strategic requirement for specific ship numbers and classes."

Iraq: Mr Mattis said the principal US interest in Iraq "is to ensure" it doesn't become "a rump state" of Iran, a nation that "has proven to be the primary source of turmoil in the Middle East".

Budget caps: Mr Mattis said he does not believe any agreement to modify the 2011 Budget Control Act must apportion equal increases to defence and domestic spending, as did the Obama administration.

China: Its behaviour "has led countries in the region to look for stronger US leadership. If confirmed, I will examine ways to strengthen our allies and partners, while taking a careful look at our own military capabilities in the region. We must continue to defend our interests there - interests that include upholding international legal rights to freedom of navigation and overflight".

North Korea: Mr Mattis answered "yes" when asked by the committee if he will examine whether US forces in South Korea have the capability to destroy sites in North Korea containing weapons of mass destruction, "in particular that process, handle, or store special nuclear material".