MILITARY TECHNOLOGY SUBCOMMITTEE, SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE, RAYBURN BUILDING, WASHINGTON, D.C.
"I hoped we'd never be facing this question again in my lifetime," the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said, his voice serious. "But here it is. Looks like the devil's goin' to the prom, and we're praying he don't ask us to dance."
The main part of the morning's classified, closed hearing had already concluded; the scientists and comptrollers had packed up their charts and spreadsheets, leaving only the subcommittee members, several general officers, and a few aides. This was the open debate portion of the session, a "chat session" where everything was fair game and the uniformed officers had a last chance to persuade. It was usually more casual and more freewheeling than formal subcommittee testimony, and it gave all involved a chance to vent their frustrations and opinions.
"I'd say, Senator," Air Force General Victor G. Hayes, the chief of staff of the Air Force, responded, "that we've got no choice but to dance with that devil. The question is, can we keep him from only tipping over the punch bowl, or is he going to burn down the whole school gymnasium if we don't do something?"
"You characterize the attacks on Taiwan and Guam as just a tipped-over punch bowl, General?" a committee member asked.
General Hayes shook his head and wiped the smile from his face. He knew better than to try to get too chummy or casual with these committee members, no matter how plain-talking and down-home they sometimes sounded.
This was the first time Victor "Jester" Hayes had testified before any committee in Congress. Although the Pentagon gave "charm school" classes and seminars to high-ranking officers on how to handle reporters, dignitaries, and civilians in a variety of circumstances, including giving testimony before Congress, it was simply impossible to fully prepare for ordeals like this. He did not feel comfortable here, and he was afraid it showed. Big-time.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral George Balboa, was seated beside Hayes. The other members of the Joint Chiefs General William Marshall, Army chief of staff; Admiral Wayne Connor, chief of Naval Operations; and General Peter Traherne, commandant of the Marine Corps, along with senior deputies and aides were also seated at the table facing the subcommittee. Out of the corner of his eye, Hayes could see the barely disguised amusement on some of their faces. Balboa in particular seemed to be enjoying the sight of Hayes roasting a little in front of a congressional subcommittee.
Screw 'em all, Hayes told himself resolutely. I'm a fighter pilot. I'm an aerial assassin. These congressmen may be high-ranking elected government officials, but they wouldn't understand a good fight if it kicked them in the ass. Be yourself. Show 'em what you got. As far as Balboa was concerned well, he was a weasel, and everyone knew it. He was virtually powerless, allowed to keep his position by the good graces of powerful opposition party members in Congress even though he publicly ambushed his Commander in Chief.
"Forgive me for trying to take some of the doomsday tone out of this discussion, Senator," Hayes responded. "After two days of secret testimony on some of the new 'black' weapons programs we've included in the Air Force budget, I thought it might be time for a little break. But I assure you: this is a very serious matter. The future of the United States Air Force, and indeed the fate of our military forces and the nation itself, will be determined in the next several years by the decisions we make today.
"I characterize the ballistic missile attacks on Taiwan and Guam by the People's Republic of China as a repudiation of thirty years of arms reduction efforts and a warning to the United States armed forces that we must develop a multilayered antimissile defense system immediately. We bargained away our antimissile capabilities in the 1970s, believing that nonproliferation would lead to peace. Now, in the face of renewed aggression, rearmament, terrorism, and the spread of small-scale and black-market weapons of mass destruction, I feel we have no choice but to rebuild our defensive forces. The days of believing that our conventional precision war-fighting capability obviated and obsoleted decades of nuclear warfare strategy and technology are history."
"Apparently so," one committee member said ruefully. "I for one am mystified and angry about this waste of time, money, and resources. We've spent hundreds of billions of dollars on these new 'smart' weapons, and now you're saying they won't protect us?"
"I'm saying that the rules are changing, Senator," General Hayes said earnestly, "and we must change with them.
"We gave away our defensive capability because we kept a large, strong offensive force, including nuclear deterrent forces. We then dismantled those deterrent forces when the threat from other superpowers diminished. Now the threat is back, but we have neither defensive nor deterrent forces in place. That leaves us vulnerable to criticism at best and attack at worst. The China incident is a perfect example."
"That's all fine and good, General, but these budget numbers are staggering, and the path you want to embark on here reminds me of the nuclear nightmare times of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan," the senator went on, motioning to his staff report. "You're asking for billions more on some truly horrifying programs, like antiballistic missile lasers, space-based lasers, and these so-called plasma-yield weapons. What's going on, General? Is the Air Force so desperate for a mission right now that you'll even go back to 'mutually assured destruction' doctrines of the Cold War?"
"Members of the committee, I asked Secretary of Defense Chastain and Secretary of the Air Force Mortonson to give the Air Force a budget for the deployment of a new class of weapons not to shock or galvanize the Congress, but because I truly believe the time has long passed for us to be thinking about this kind of war fighting," General Hayes went on. "China's recent nuclear attacks on Taiwan; its suspected nuclear sabotage of the aircraft carrier USS Independence in Yokosuka Harbor; and its shocking, unprovoked, and horrific ballistic missile nuclear attack on the island of Guam, which all but wiped Anderson Air Force Base off the map three years ago, all are a warning to the United States."
"It's a warning, all right," another senator offered. "But it seems more a warning to avoid stepping up to the edge of that slippery slope. Do we want to start another nuclear arms race?"
It seemed as if most folks in America had all but forgotten what had happened only three years ago, Hayes thought grimly. In 1997, just before their "Reunification Day" celebrations, the People's Republic of China launched a small-scale nuclear assault on Taiwan, which had just declared full independence and sovereignty from the mainland. Several Taiwanese military bases were decimated; over fifty thousand persons lost their lives. At the same time, a nuclear explosion in Yokosuka Harbor outside Tokyo destroyed several American warships, including the soon-to-be-retired aircraft carrier USS Independence. China was accused of that unconscionable act, but the actual culprit was never positively identified. When the United States tried to halt the PRC's attacks against Taiwan, China retaliated by launching a nuclear ballistic missile attack on the island of Guam, shutting down two important American military bases in the Pacific.
The reverberations of that fateful summer of 1997 were still being felt. Japan had closed down all U.S. military bases on their soil and had only recently begun allowing some limited access to U.S. warships provisioning and humanitarian shore leave only, with ships at anchor in the harbor, not in port, and no weapons transfers in their territorial waters. South Korea was permitting only routine provisioning and shore leave they were allowing no weapons transfers within five miles of shore and prohibited staging military operations from their ports. It was the same for most ports of call in the western Pacific. American naval presence in the Pacific was almost nil.
And America's response to China's attacks was ... silence. Except for one massive joint Air Force/Navy defensive air armada around Taiwan that all but destroyed China's Air Force, and an isolated but highly effective series of air raids inside China largely attributed to American stealth bombers, aided by Taiwanese fighters the Americans had not retaliated. It was world condemnation alone that eventually forced China to abandon its plan to force Taiwan back into its sphere of influence.
"I'm concerned about the path Russia, Japan, and North Korea are taking in the wake of the economic collapse in Asia and the conflict in the Balkans," Hayes went on. "Russia appears to be back in the hands of hard-liners and neo-Communists. Food riots in North Korea have led to the slaughter of thousands of civilians by military forces foraging for food. Japan has isolated us out of the Pacific and is proceeding with plans to remilitarize, all in an apparent attempt to shore up confidence in its government. I don't believe the United States sparked this return to the specter of the Cold War, but we must be prepared to deal with it."
"We are all shocked and horrified about all those events as well, General," the senator pointed out, "and we agree with the President that we must be better prepared for radical changes in the political climate. But this ... this buildup of such powerful weapons that you're asking for seems to be an overreaction. What you are proposing goes far beyond what any of us see as a measured response to world events."
General Hayes swallowed hard. This was turning into a much harder sell than he had expected. While the world slowly went back to an uneasy, suspicious peace, President Kevin Martindale was roundly criticized for his inaction. Although China was stopped and an all-out nuclear conflict was averted, many Americans wanted someone to pay a bigger price for the hundreds of thousands who had died on Taiwan, Guam, and onboard the four Navy warships destroyed in Yokosuka Harbor. The hawkish President was slammed in the press for abandoning the capital onboard Air Force One during the attacks on Taiwan, while failing to use most of the military power he had spent his entire career in Washington trying to build up.
No one could say precisely what Martindale should have done, but everyone was convinced he should have done something more.