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Interview: U.S. Rep. James Langevin

Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., is a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, where he is the ranking member of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, and also serves on the Subcommittees on Seapower and Projection Forces and Tactical Air and Land Forces. As a supporter of the critical national security work done by Rhode Island’s defense industry, he has worked in committee to double production of the extraordinary Virginia-class submarines built in Quonset, meeting military needs and creating hundreds of new jobs.

After fulfilling an eight-year term on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Langevin returned as a senior member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, where he serves as a member of the Subcommittees on Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications.

Securing our nation’s technology infrastructure against cyber attack is a top priority for Langevin. As the co-founder and co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus, he led the way in raising awareness of cybersecurity issues in Congress and fostering dialogue and debate on the critical questions surrounding this topic. He co-chaired the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Commission on Cyber Security for the 44th Presidency, which made policy recommendations to President Barack Obama. Langevin has introduced the Personal Data Notification and Protection Act to ensure consumers are appropriately alerted when their sensitive information is compromised. To further improve cybersecurity, he has also introduced the Executive Cyberspace Coordination Act, which aims to strengthen the country’s defenses against cyber threats and reflects concerns listed in the commission’s report, including the vulnerability of critical infrastructure.

Recognized as a national and party leader on national security, health care and cybersecurity, Langevin has dedicated his many years of public service at the federal and state levels to the hard-working citizens of Rhode Island.

Born April 22, 1964, Langevin is the first quadriplegic to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

At the age of 16, Langevin was injured while working with the Warwick Police Department in the Boy Scout Explorer program. A gun accidentally discharged and a bullet struck Langevin, leaving him paralyzed. The tremendous outpouring of support from his community inspired Langevin to give something back and enter public service.

Langevin graduated from Rhode Island College and earned a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He resides in Warwick, Rhode Island.


Special Operations Outlook: The Trump administration released a new National Defense Strategy (NDS) at the end of 2017, placing emphasis on the issue of near-peer threats China and Russia, and in fact calling such near-peer competition the primary threat facing the United States. Given that special operations in the years since Sept. 11 have primarily been involved with counterterrorism and anti-insurgency efforts, how do you see the naming of this new primary threat affecting Special Operations Command (SOCOM)?

U.S. Rep. James Langevin: Regardless of the type of threat, Special Operations Command will continue to play a key role in our national security. SOCOM has been and will continue to be heavily engaged in counterterrorism, but their expertise in the core special operations activities also helps reduce threats for combatant commanders across the spectrum of operations. Our special operations forces [SOF] are in more than 80 countries, working side by side with partners and allies to facilitate peaceful cooperation as well as combat operations. Our global security environment is only going to get more complex. For this reason, our special operations forces and their unique capabilities will continually need to answer the call.

James Langevin web

U.S. Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I.

Special operations has been traditionally considered “the tip of the spear,” a small but elite force. In the years since 9/11, SOCOM’s ranks have doubled, and the command’s budget request for next year asks for funding to add 1,000 more troops. Do we have to consider that the “special” missions that SOCOM has historically undertaken are the new norm? Or will the new emphasis on near-peer competitors see SOF pushed into the background as they were during much of the Cold War?

Our special operations forces are growing as threats around the world evolve. Our adversaries do not want to get in a high-end conflict with the United States, and for good reason. But while near-peer competitor challenges grow, we must remember SOF remains engaged in the counterterrorism fight and is still hard at work in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Africa. We must not lose sight of that. We must ensure that we are not overburdening the SOF community and are caring for them and their families when they return home.

What does the shift of focus to strategic competition with near peers, as outlined in the National Defense Strategy, mean for the partners and allies that have been a key part of SOCOM’s mission success as far as their tactics, techniques, manpower, methods, etc.?

Our partners and allies remain one of our strategic advantages over our adversaries, and will remain a key asset in any future conflict. We could not operate as effectively around the world without our network of alliances, and we see that today in places like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where our allies and partners provide specific and reinforcing capabilities to ensure stability in all corners of the globe.

In that same vein, how do we ensure that our relationships with partners and allies remain strong as Russia and China seek to undermine U.S. strength – not always overtly (i.e., militarily) but through economic or political or social means? How do we keep our partners on board and not swayed by subversive messaging?

These challenges to U.S. strength and the strength of our alliances is not a military problem alone. While we must have a strong national defense, we must also effectively use all diplomatic, economic, and informational elements of national power available to us. It is essential that we empower the State Department to carry out its essential functions, removing some of the burden on the Department of Defense and sending a strong message to any potential adversaries that there are no gaps in U.S. power projection.

Our special operations forces are growing as threats around the world evolve. Our adversaries do not want to get in a high-end conflict with the United States, and for good reason.

Psychological operations have been a component of our special operations forces for a long time. After seeing how social media was weaponized by the Russians during the recent election, does a strong cyber component also need to be a part of SOCOM or within each of its service component commands to defend our forces as well as offensively exploit the cyber domain? Or are our existing cyber commands sufficient to defend the nation?

I have been studying cyber for over a decade now, and if I am certain of one thing, it is that any future conflict will contain an element of cyber. I am pleased that U.S. Cyber Command has moved quickly to ensure the Cyber Mission Force reaches FOC [full operational capability] ahead of schedule, and I look forward to the installation of a new commander and to CYBERCOM’s formal elevation to a unified combatant command, which will benefit both SOCOM as well as the entire Department of Defense. It is also critical we renew our focus on psychological and information operations, which are separate from cyber but also of vital focus as we work together to defend the nation.

For some years now, SOF leadership has studied and discussed SOCOM’s role in the “gray zone” – an area of conflict lying between peace and outright war. Do you think our special operations forces are adequately trained and equipped for this highly dynamic area of operations, and do you see the gray zone continuing to change and expand?

The “gray zone” will be an enduring challenge that our special operations forces are uniquely trained to address. As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I am committed to supporting programs that help us achieve superiority even in these nontraditional conflicts, particularly those related to training and equipping. Our SOF are the best in the world and are assigned some of the toughest missions out there, and I am continually impressed by our operators’ relentless pursuit of mission accomplishment.

James Langevin wargame web

U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin addresses attendees of the Navy-Private Sector Critical Infrastructure Wargame held at U.S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. The wargame brought together approximately 140 executives and information security officers from private industry across several sectors to share insights surrounding the impact on the U.S. Navy resulting from cyber-related disruptions. U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY DANIEL L. KUESTER

You successfully added language into the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) calling climate change a security threat to the United States. Can you talk a bit about your rationale for that move? How do you feel about the omission of climate change as a security threat in the National Security Strategy (NSS) released in December 2017?

It is a fact that the Earth’s climate is changing. As the effects of those changes start to manifest, it is critical that the Department of Defense be equipped to combat and mitigate them in order to provide for readiness and mission resiliency. The Pentagon’s top military and civilian officials, as well as the intelligence community, have stated publicly that climate change is a direct threat to both national and global security, and with passage of last year’s NDAA, Congress has finally followed suit. I am disappointed that climate change was omitted from both the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy, and I led a bipartisan coalition of members of Congress in writing to the president and the secretary of defense expressing our concern with the omission. However, regardless of its direct inclusion in the NSS/NDS, we cannot shift our focus on this critically important threat.

The “gray zone” will be an enduring challenge that our special operations forces are uniquely trained to address. As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I am committed to supporting programs that help us achieve superiority even in these nontraditional conflicts, particularly those related to training and equipping.

The Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR) has taken the majority of the military’s focus since at least Sept. 11, 2001, though a pivot to the Pacific AOR has been discussed for a handful of years now. How much of that pivot has taken shape? How much more needs to happen, and how quickly?

The current administration has not holistically retained the shift in focus towards the Pacific AOR the way the previous administration did. However, our special operations forces have remained focused on and operating in the Pacific region for years to assure allies, deter aggression, and address complex threats. While complex threats continue to arise out of CENTCOM that are worthy of our attention, it is critical we continue to address the very real threats emerging from the Pacific with speed, agility, and flexibility.

The SOCOM budget request for FY 2019 is its largest request ever made – $13.6 billion – but it cuts research and development funding for the second year in a row. While SOCOM has traditionally leveraged and depended upon the procurement budgets of their parent services, do the demands of today and tomorrow require a renewed emphasis on R&D tailored to SOF needs?

As we prepare to confront different types of threats outlined in the National Defense Strategy, it is critical that we continue to invest in research and development as a whole. It is disappointing to see this decrease in R&D, as SOCOM must be able to provide the best innovative capabilities that take advantage of emerging paradigms like artificial intelligence. These investments in innovation would add capabilities to our arsenal to ensure our special operations forces have what they need, and enough of it, to ward off a near-peer challenge. But at the end of the day, we must remember that our service members are our most valuable asset. It is incumbent upon Congress, our national laboratories, the defense industrial base, and the Department of Defense to ensure we provide those service members the tools they need so that they are never sent into a fair fight.

This interview was originally published in the 2018-2019 edition of Special Operations Outlook.

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