- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2019

As he makes his pitch to permanently lead the Pentagon, Mark Esper declared that the U.S. is not seeking war with Iran and insisted on a diplomatic channel to simmer ongoing tensions.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, the onetime Raytheon executive and President Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Defense said the military’s goal is to “deter war, and this can only be done with a strong, modern, and ready military that has overmatch in all domains.”

Mr. Esper’s nomination to become the permanent defense secretary — succeeding James Mattis, who resigned more than six months ago — comes as tensions between the U.S. and Iran increase, and China and Russia inch towards outpacing American military modernization efforts.

In his prepared remarks, Mr. Esper told the committee that the need to balance military readiness with modernization is the department’s “central challenge.”

Mr. Esper appeared before the Senate in his role as the secretary of the Army due to a federal law that states that an official can’t serve as an acting secretary while undergoing confirmation for the permanent post.

The Pennsylvania native comes with a wealth of experience as he served in the Army and saw combat in the Gulf War. Mr. Esper later served as national security adviser to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, and policy director for the House Armed Services Committee, along with stints at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the conservative Heritage Foundation and elsewhere across Washington.

In 2017, Mr. Trump nominated him to become secretary of the Army, a job he held until last month. In June, Mr. Esper became acting defense secretary.

In the first few minutes of his hearing, Mr. Esper faced questions on the military presence at the Mexican border, growing cyber threats from adversaries, and U.S.’ relationships with allies,

“There’s always room for improvement,” Mr. Esper told Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the panel’s ranking Democrat, who asked about President Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign affairs.

Mr. Esper also called on the committee to swiftly pass the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which details the military’s budget, as the House and Senate gear up for fierce debates on their separate defense policy bills.

He told the committee that if there were to be a delay in passing the Pentagon’s budget, each day would be “one less day that we can invest in future capabilities. … It just gets worse and worse over time, and in many cases you cannot make it up.”

If confirmed, Mr. Esper would take on Mr. Trump’s call to establish a Space Force, severe housing problems that have plagued every branch of the armed forces, and nuclear negotiations with Russia.

“We cannot stand by while Russia arms itself,” he said and encouraged Moscow to come back into compliance with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty which the U.S. withdrew from earlier this year.

• Lauren Toms can be reached at lmeier@washingtontimes.com.

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