Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense supports Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme, the NATO alliance and restrained use of nuclear weapons during his confirmation hearing, marking a stark departure from the president-elect.
Retired US Marine Corps General James Mattis’ stance on those issues would have been unremarkable with any other incoming administration. Yet in light of Trump’s Twitter attacks on the defense aviation industry and his coziness with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mattis’ boilerplate comments took on a fresh relevance.
During his 12 January Senate confirmation hearing, Mattis struck a calm, measured tone. Where recent senate confirmation hearings of Trump’s nominees experienced repeated interruptions from protesters and heated questioning from senators, Mattis’ hearing saw little contention.
If confirmed, Mattis could form a counterweight to Trump in the Pentagon. While Trump has targeted the F-35 programme numerous times on the campaign and on Twitter since his election, Mattis praised the fighter and called it critical to allies’ capability. Not only will the F-35 magnify the capability of other US aircraft, the fighter will create the total strength of several foreign air forces, he says.
When asked about Trump’s tendency to tweet about defense aviation programmes, Mattis demurred.
“It’s not my role to comment on his statements other than to say he is serious about getting the best bang for the dollar and that’s where I find common ground with him,” Mattis says. “I see his statements on certain defense programmes showing his serious side of keeping these programmes under control.”
In written statements, Mattis told senators he would support the nuclear-capable F-35 and bomber programme. Further, the retired general backed dual-capable F-35s for NATO and supported the deployment of the B-61 weapon system.
In August, Trump reportedly asked about the US nuclear arsenal: “If we have them, why can’t we use them?” In contrast, Mattis took a more measured approach to the employment of nuclear weapons.
“I consider the [nuclear] deterrent to be critical because we don’t ever want those weapons used,” he says.
As the US military examines a recapitalisation of its entire nuclear triad, Mattis told senators he would support a “manned” bomber indicating he could thwart previous attempts to create an unmanned bomber. In September, the US Air Force’s head of Global Strike Command said the bomber could be unmanned in the future, but maintained the service is not planning any unmanned designs today.
While Mattis vouched for the bomber, intercontinental ballistic missile and submarine elements of the triad recapitalisation, he deferred senators’ questions on the Long Range Standoff weapon.
“I need to look at that one,” he says. “It makes sense, but I need to look at it in respect to its deterrent capability.”
Over the course of his campaign, Trump railed against NATO allies whom he said did not contribute enough funding. In a typical confirmation hearing, a potential defense secretary’s support of NATO would not constitute news. But Mattis’ support of NATO and cautious tone over cooperating with Russia struck a different chord.
“I would see us maintaining strongest possible relationship with NATO,” he says. “If we didn’t have NATO today we would need to create it.”