Senator Joni Ernst joined the Senate Armed Services Committee two years ago as one of a new crop of Republican hawks — and has since been outspoken on a slew of national security issues.
A veteran of the Iraq War, retired Army National Guard Lieutenant Colonel from Iowa was critical of the Obama administration’s approach to fighting the Islamic State, and pushed for provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act to directly arm the Kurdish forces fighting the terrorist group.
She’s also warned about the threat of ISIL in Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines, as part of what she contends is a spread of the terrorist group’s operations well beyond the Middle East.
“We need to pay attention to this. We’re not containing it. We’re not degrading ISIS,” Ernst says. “They’re just shifting operations all around the globe.”
On the home front, the freshman senator lists as top priorities combating sexual assault in the military and Pentagon accountability in the wake of a report that the Pentagon wastes billions of dollars in administrative and business operations.
POLITICO sat down with Ernst in her Capitol Hill office to discuss her defense priorities in the new Congress.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
POLITICO: You’ve voiced your concerns at Senate Armed Services about ISIL in Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines. How would you characterize the threat and what needs to be done about it?
SENATOR ERNST: It has been a threat in Southeast Asia for a very long time. It’s becoming a more pressing issue because we have seen groups like Abu Sayyaf that have come forward. They have pledged their allegiance to ISIS. … There was an attack on the Philippine president’s convoy … that injured a number of their troops. There was a bomb placed near the U.S. embassy. Those are all big concerns we need to pay attention to.
ISIS isn’t going away. … We have seen that they have used that as really a planning-and-staging ground for other attacks that have happened around the globe. So we need to pay attention and not provide safe haven anywhere. … ISIS has spread from the Middle East. They’ve gone into Africa. They’ve gone into Afghanistan. We see them continually developing their operations in Southeast Asia. We’re seeing it in Latin America as well. So, we need to pay attention to this. We’re not containing it. We’re not degrading ISIS. It’s something the president had said a number of years ago. … It’s not happening. They’re just shifting operations all around the globe.
POLITICO: How do you think the recent changeover in leadership in the Philippines has affected that?
SENATOR ERNST: This has been a really interesting transition because we’ve seen the dynamics between the current Philippine president and our president, President [Barack] Obama. Not a lot of love lost, I think, in that relationship. However, you see with an incoming administration there’s a willingness by President-elect Trump to reach out, try and work through any differences our countries might have to see, and we’ve seen that reciprocated now from the Philippines.
Now where this goes, of course that’s up to [President Donald] Trump and their president, but I am very encouraged that they have begun those discussions. And because of those discussions the Philippines president has now stated, ‘OK, I said we weren’t going to do military exercises any longer with the United States. I’ve reconsidered that and I will allow some military exercises to go forward.’ That’s encouraging to me.
POLITICO: You’ve also pushed for language in the NDAA the past couple years to allow for direct arming of the Kurds.
SENATOR ERNST: [It’s] very important because the Kurdish Peshmerga — and I’ve known a lot of service members who have actually worked directly with the Peshmerga — … are one of the only fighting forces that is willing to stand up and defend their country against ISIS. … They have proven to be very, very effective in fighting against ISIS. And currently they are providing a safe haven, or safe space, for about 2 million refugees, and many of them are Christians. … They have really stepped up to the plate. I think it’s important we’re supporting those that are willing to defend their country. … We have a great partnership, and it’s time we do something about that.
POLITICO: Do you think that could change in the [new] administration?
SENATOR ERNST: I think so. … We will have an administration that is more forward looking, hopefully. … I’m speaking my hopes, my beliefs. … I’m not speaking for the president, but I do have a level of optimism there that the president will understand the significance of enabling others to defend their country. We need to maintain alliances, and those that are working well with us, we should be supportive of those efforts. If there are more Kurdish Peshmerga willing to step up and fight ISIS, that’s hopefully less American lives that will have to step up and fight against ISIS.
POLITICO: You recently visited Afghanistan. What was your read of the situation, and what still needs to be done there over the next year or so?
SENATOR ERNST: I still think it’s very complicated. I think that just in the way it was described to me, I think the Afghanistan conventional forces still need some additional work. They need leaders coming from within their ranks that are being developed to fight against al Qaeda or the Taliban, ISIS. Their special forces … are very well trained and they have great leaders in that organization.
Again, this is Joni Ernst, but I would love to see some of those leaders come from the special forces … really cross-pollinizing out into to some of the other conventional forces and providing that leadership, providing that training assistance. The United States does a wonderful job training, advising and assisting forces there, but they just need additional supports for their conventional forces, and they need the leaders that have grown up through special forces to do that.
That’s one of the biggest takeaways that I have, is that their conventional forces could use additional supports. But overall when you look at their special forces, they’re doing a very good job and we’re really pleased about that. Life there still remains difficult.
POLITICO: The [former] president [Barack Obama] has frozen the troop levels in Afghanistan through the end of the year. Do you think [President Trump] should to consider increasing the troop levels there?
SENATOR ERNST: What you would hear from the [combatant] commander is that they could use additional troops, but I’ve heard many of the commanders say we will work with whatever you give us. I understand they don’t want to complain. If they would go lower, they would have a very difficult time, but they would like to see greater troop strength.
Of course, if the Afghan conventional forces would really further develop and could take on a greater capacity then, you know, maybe more US troops is not necessary, but until that point we need to make sure we’re bridging that gap.
POLITICO: What’s your take on how the NDAA conference report turned out and what were the highlights of the bill for you?
SENATOR ERNST: For me, I had a number of provisions that were included. So military sexual assault, we have the retaliation portion that will be included. That’s something Claire McCaskill and I worked on together. And that was important to us to make sure that was included, but I think overall there was a willingness to move it forward.
There were some great policy changes which were asked for by the services as well as a number of the senators. I think that everybody saw a little something that moves the Department of Defense in the right direction.
POLITICO: What are other priorities will you be working on in the new year?
SENATOR ERNST: There’s a number of priorities for next year: accountability within the Department of Defense. Going back to the report that we saw…a little bit alarming, actually a lot alarming. But we need to focus on accountability, making sure that taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely and that our service members are getting what they need without additional overhead. … [A]ccountability within the organization, and I have [an accountability] bill … and it was included in the NDAA. … That will be important. We need to stay on top of that because we are operating in a constrained environment fiscally and we need to make sure we’re using those dollars wisely.
Military sexual assault, again, going forward is going to remain a priority. And then focusing, again, on a strategy to defeat ISIS, whether it’s in Latin America, whether it’s in Southeast Asia. Wherever they might migrate and start to develop further, we’ve got to do something about this.
POLITICO: The NDAA also froze the drawdown in military end strength. How important do you think it is to halt the drawdown so that end strength could be built back up?
SENATOR ERNST: I do think it’s important. And again, we’ll have to look to our subject matter experts, our service chiefs and see what their proposals are because we know as we try to … build up our capacity in the services, which is something that the president-elect has spoken about. We have to understand that with additional troops come additional services needed, come additional training, additional equipment and so forth.
There will be dollars attached to this. And are we, as a Congress and as America, ready to stand up and support our military? That’s the question that we’re laying out there. I hope that we’re able to come together and do that.
POLITICO: Does the cost associated with building back up the force concern you?
SENATOR ERNST: It does. But, again, we have to move in a smart manner, too, because our capabilities are changing. … Maybe, there needs to be a renewed emphasis in cyber. Maybe that’s where we’re investing in personnel. … We don’t want cookie cutters of everything we’ve done in the past. If we’re building up troop strength, we need to be forward-looking and make sure our needs are going to fit tomorrow’s combat.