President Donald Trump's nominee to be the next secretary of defense has slammed Turkey's acceptance of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system, parts of which were delivered last week, as "wrong."
"Their [Turkey's] decision on the S-400 is the wrong one, and it's disappointing," Secretary of the Army Mark Esper told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing Tuesday on his nomination to lead the Defense Department.
The decision by Ankara puts Russian advanced radar technology into a key NATO alliance member, which Washington and its allies fear could compromise NATO military systems in Turkey. The S-400 could potentially be used to target NATO jets, including NATO's newest stealth fighter jet, the U.S.-made F-35 Lightning II.
Esper told lawmakers he emphasized in a phone call to Turkey's Defense Minister Hulusi Akar on Friday that "you can either have the S-400 or the F-35. You can't have both."
"Acquisition of the S-400 fundamentally undermines the capabilities of the F-35 and our ability to retain that overmatch in the skies going forward," he said.
Hours later, Trump reiterated what his nominee had told Congress, saying the U.S. had told Turkey that it would not sell Ankara the F-35.
"We're working through it. We'll see what happens, but it's not really fair," Trump said.
On Iran, Esper said the U.S. should deter threats in international waterways near the rogue nation by "passive patrolling" and escorting of commercial ships, in a move he dubbed Operation Sentinel.
At the same time, he said the U.S. should try to "meet anytime, anywhere" with Iran to solve outstanding issues and prevent miscalculations.
"Everyone's worried about Iran and the tensions over there," Tom Spoehr, retired lieutenant general of the U.S. Army and current director of The Heritage Foundation's Center for National Defense, told VOA. "I don't think war or even conflict is imminent, but I think a steady hand at the tiller at the Pentagon will be very useful in that regard."
In Tuesday's confirmation hearing, Esper pointed to last week when Britain said a British navy ship's presence prevented Iranian vessels from impeding the passage of a British commercial vessel through the Strait of Hormuz, as an example of how the operation can work.
"That's the type of concept we are trying to envision in DOD throughout the Strait so we don't get into a military fight. We push it into the diplomatic realm," he said.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard has denied the allegations.
Iran and Iranian-backed forces have been blamed for several recent incidents in the region, including attacks on several tankers, attacks on a Saudi airport, an attack on a Saudi oil pipeline and a rocket attack in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad's Green Zone.
The army secretary seems especially concerned with the rise of China, which spent several years increasing its military budgets as the U.S. cut back on its defense spending.
"The threat posed to us over the long run by China cannot be overstated," Esper told lawmakers, "They are playing the long game, and we are playing the short game."
He underscored that the U.S. did not want a war with China or even to be an adversary of China, but it did want to be a competitor of China.
He warned that the United States needed a whole-of-government approach as "China's economic might" continues to grow.
"It's only a matter of time before they match us and possibly surpass us," Esper said, while sharing his concerns that China may try to use its economic growth "in a way that will pull likely partners, if not our current ones, away from us."
Esper also sounded the alarm on Chinese and Russian cyberwarfare, saying the U.S. has lots of offensive capabilities but remains "vulnerable" on the defensive side.
"We are at war, if you will, in the cyber domain now, constantly battling countries such as Russia or China, who are trying to do everything from steal our technology, to influence elections to put out disinformation about the United States," he said.
If confirmed, Esper will be the first Senate-approved secretary of defense since Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in late December.
"I am concerned that the Defense Department is adrift in a way I've not seen in my whole time on Capitol Hill," Democratic Senator Jack Reed, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Esper Tuesday.
Senator Tim Kaine, a former Democratic candidate for vice president, testified on behalf of Esper's character.
"Most of us were very discouraged by the resignation of Secretary Mattis, and what we've hoped for is a successor who could show the same level of candor and principle and a willingness to remain independent, even in the most challenging circumstances. I believe that Dr. Esper has those traits," he said.