On 4 March 2021, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a confirmation hearing for Colin Kahl, nominee for Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Committee members debated several issues related to the nominee. These include Kahl’s political leanings, which point to the type of the policies that he would favor as a civilian employee in the Department of Defense. The highlights of the hearing are as follows:
Kahl’s stance on certain national security challenges
1- Articulating a new national security strategy: In Kahl’s view, the U.S. needs a new national security strategy to account for technological advancements, artificial intelligence, climate change, and changes in the global environment. At the present stage, he sees it as extremely important to strengthen the nuclear weapons stockpile overseen by the Department of Energy, given the need to enhance the United States’ nuclear deterrence capabilities. He bases this position on the competition among global powers, especially China and Russia, to amass nuclear weapons.
2- Prioritizing health security: Kahl emphasized that one of his priorities will be the COVID-19 pandemic response. He will support the efforts of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to rein in the pandemic, as workers must have peace of mind that they can safely perform their essential duties.
3- Developing American capabilities in space: Kahl said it is important to develop U.S. military capabilities in space in order to compete with China and Russia as they make incursions into space. Since many countries have begun taking advantage of space to secure their strategic interests, the U.S. must ensure that its security and national interests are protected. This includes countering any threats from satellites owned by Russia or China, both of which view space as a future battlefield. Kahl added that rival countries will not distinguish between American military and commercial satellites, and that they will become increasingly belligerent towards Washington. Thus, American capabilities must be developed in order to have a presence in space.
4- Responding resolutely to cybersecurity threats: Cyberattacks have become a prominent feature of the present age. In light of repeated cyberattacks on the U.S., Kahl indicated that he will work to enhance the ability of the U.S. armed forces to protect national security. He also stated that he will support the position of National Cyber Director, which was newly created in the 2021 budget. The National Cyber Director is tasked with coordinating between government institutions to foster cooperation and integration for the development of cyberspace, as well as allocating resources and developing policy and plans to improve American cybersecurity capabilities.
Strengthening the U.S. role in confronting adversaries
1- Considering China as the greatest threat to the U.S.: Kahl said that China is among the greatest threats to the U.S. in the coming period. He indicated that flaws in the U.S. armed forces must be addressed to make it more capable and better prepared to respond to Chinese threats and dangers. Kahl also discussed securing the region spanning the Indian and Pacific Oceans. He sees it as important to work with U.S. allies to ensure this region’s security and stability, including protecting freedom of navigation and preventing Chinese encroachments aimed at blocking the passage of ships through this region.
2- Responding to the Russian hybrid war: Kahl said that despite the differences between China and Russia, they both intend to spread their authoritarian model throughout the world. This undermines global democracy and the standards of freedom and human rights. Cooperation between China and Russia, which is aimed at gaining economic, political, and military advantages throughout the world, threatens global security. Thus, the U.S. must strengthen ties with its allies so as to more effectively resist growing Chinese and Russian influence. Kahl added that innovation is needed in the development of military equipment in order to respond to Russia’s hybrid war against the U.S. Furthermore, the U.S. must sign arms control agreements with Russia to protect national security.
3- Deterring the North Korean regime: Kahl stated that the U.S. remains able to maintain the security of the Korean Peninsula and respond to the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Kahl said that U.S. allies in Asia are facilitating the mission of countering North Korea’s threats in Northeast Asia.
He added that it is important for the United States to maintain a presence in Northeast Asia for the purpose of deterrence, and that the U.S. must continue to impose sanctions on the North Korean regime in order to counter and mitigate the threats it poses. Kahl emphasized that Washington must be vigilant and prepared to cooperate with South Korea to respond to a potential North Korean attack. In his view, it is vital to keep U.S. forces in South Korea in order to safeguard the Korean Peninsula.
4- Strengthening military cooperation between allies: Kahl said that the distribution of American forces beyond the borders of the U.S. is vital in order to protect American interests, maintain the stability and security of Washington’s allies, and maintain the stability of the international order in the face of Chinese, Russian, Iranian, and North Korean threats.
5- The importance of the NATO alliance in protecting American interests: To Kahl, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is important for the protection of U.S. national interests. In particular, NATO strengthens liberal and democratic values and the rule of law with the support of U.S. allies in the European Union. He stated that Washington should continue to uphold Article 5 of the treaty, which holds that NATO members will work together to defend one another from any threat. Kahl also discussed budgetary burdens and voiced his support for increasing the share of military expenditures from NATO countries, based on the principle of burden-sharing. He said that this increase would help the alliance to continue carrying out its mission.
The shape of U.S. policy towards the Middle East
1- Reviewing the positioning of U.S. forces in the region: Kahl expressed that it is important to review where U.S. armed forces are deployed in the Middle East, as their presence maintains the security and stability of U.S. allies in the face of Iranian aggression, as well as protecting American interests in the region.
2- Sharing burdens with allies: Kahl stated that Washington must cooperate with its allies in the Middle East to deter global terrorist networks. He said he favors working with Middle Eastern allies on reasonable burden-sharing, arguing that Arab countries must take the reins to protect themselves under the aegis of the U.S.
3- Relying on sustainable diplomacy: Kahl said that the Middle East has become an arena for competition between the major powers, especially Russia and China. He indicated that the military will not be the only instrument for addressing Chinese and Russian competition in the Middle East. Instead, there must be a reassessment of this competition and the nature of the Russian and Chinese presence in the Middle East in order to devise a suitable strategy to counter them. To that end, sustainable diplomacy will play a major role.
4- Opposing a return to the Iranian nuclear agreement: In Kahl’s testimony, he said that he is not interested in the U.S. returning to the Iranian nuclear agreement. He favored upholding the economic sanctions that Former President Donald Trump imposed on Tehran. These sanctions were a response to Iran’s unceasing violations of the terms of the agreement, as well as other behavior which caused disorder in the Middle East. Kahl said that Iran’s behavior will become more dangerous if it acquires a nuclear weapon.
5- Confronting terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq: Kahl said that the U.S. should continue to contain terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq, which threaten American interests in the region. He indicated that U.S. forces in Syria were cooperating with Russian forces to prevent clashes from breaking out between other parties. Kahl also emphasized that U.S. forces’ primary mission in Syria is to confront ISIS, not to counter Iranian influence in the country.
6- Supporting a political resolution in Yemen: Kahl stated that U.S. interests in Yemen consist of preventing elements of ISIS and al-Qaeda from taking hold in the country and threatening its security. He added that the war will not resolve the crisis in Yemen, and that it is in the interest of the U.S. for the warring parties to reach a diplomatic resolution. In his remarks, Kahl stressed that humanitarian aid must be able to reach Yemeni civilians more easily, as the war has had a grave impact on civilians, with countless deaths.
7- Encouraging efforts for political reconciliation in Libya: Kahl said that it is in the interest of the United States to support the continued political reconciliation in Libya in order to achieve a unified, democratic, and sovereign government. He said that steps must be taken to keep Libya clear of foreign actors that threaten peace and stability in the country, as well as jeopardizing the security of the U.S. and its allies. Kahl added that the U.S. must continue to be able to monitor and disrupt violent extremist groups in the country.