“When we see what other countries around the world are doing, particularly a place like China, we certainly have to make sure that in order to be competitive and to ensure that we have not just a robust military and national defense, but a robust economy and science and technology endeavors going on and the companies that follow on from there, we always want to be at the forefront of inventing the next great thing as we have been for so many decades.” – Rep. Mikie Sherrill
Rep. Sherrill is a former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor and current representative for New Jersey’s 11th district. Learn more about her legislative priorities at sherrill.house.gov and find her on Twitter at @RepSherrill.
ACME General: My guest today is Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill, who represents New Jersey’s 11th District. She’s a former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor. And her district includes Picatinny Arsenal, an Army research and manufacturing facility and home to the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command Armaments Center. She’s also a good friend. Mikie, welcome to Accelerate Defense.
Mikie Sherrill: Well, thanks so much for having me. Great to be here.
ACME GENERAL: So first question, this one’s a zinger. Pfizer or Moderna? Or did you go Johnson-Johnson, the one-shot?
MS: Well, I received it a bit earlier in Congress, so I got the Pfizer, but I’m proud to report because J&J is a great New Jersey company, that my husband got the J&J vaccine. So showing a little hometown pride.
ACME GENERAL: I feel like it’s almost a team identification when folks ask me, I have this weird sense of pride around getting Pfizer. Like they should have handed out those foam fingers or something.
MS: Maybe tee shirts!
ACME GENERAL: Maybe tee shirts. But getting the vaccination, for me, was a reminder that America really is at its best when we come together. There is a guard unit there running the show like clockwork. My daughter, who’s 16 and eligible, got hers. And the guardsman who did hers was from New Jersey. And it just reminded me that folks are coming from all over and pulling together and we’re going to get through this.
MS: That’s so true. It is a great feeling to see folks playing together, combined with American ingenuity and know-how. I mean just the rate that this administration has gotten the vaccine out. I know we started in January with people very distressed and concerned about how they were going to have access to the vaccine. Here we are in May, and I’m telling you in my area, it’s basically walk-ins for people who want the vaccine. So we have been able to, in such a rapid time, set up this type of vaccine administration. It really does make you proud.
ACME GENERAL: It does. Although we, I think, are obliged to remind folks we’re not through it yet. We’ve got to keep on this path, and we’ve got to get to those high percentage numbers to protect those who either can’t get the shot or for a variety of reasons won’t.
MS: Yes, that’s exactly right. So we can really protect the whole community.
ACME GENERAL: Yes. So Mikie, you serve, in addition to your seat on a House Armed Services, you’re on the House Science Space and Tech Committee. And I know a bit about your background, and it doesn’t suggest an automatic fit with that committee. You’re a lawyer. You got your advanced degree in history. That was from LSE, right? London School of Economics.
MS: So I have a history degree, believe it or not, from the Naval Academy, a Bachelor of Science in history, if you can believe it. We had a very rigorous core curriculum at the academy. And then economic history, which was sort of a global view of our economy throughout the last several 100 years from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
ACME GENERAL: Which I’m sure serves you well in appreciating some of the macro issues you deal with as a Representative, but what’s the relevance to science, space and tech? More pointedly, what led you to become such a vocal advocate for tech investment, for innovation? How did you wind up on this committee?
MS: Well, it’s a perfect fit really for the district that I represent. In fact, here in New Jersey we have more scientists and engineers per square mile than anywhere else in the country. This was the home in New Jersey of Bell Labs, one of the preeminent research and development facilities in this country. And I’ll tell you, despite the fact that we don’t have it in the same structure here in New Jersey, many of the engineers and scientists that are at the leads in some of the companies in my area come out of that Bell Labs system. So to take this area, to know how important innovation and research and development is to this area, it made it an obvious choice. And then combine that with Picatinny Arsenal, really one of the most innovative bases we have in this country. We are building the future of the military on the backs of the men and women of Picatinny Arsenal. So it really does come out of, I think, this incredibly innovative place I represent.
ACME GENERAL: Picatinny is certainly a center for innovation excellence, not just in the Army, but throughout government. But when you think about the long-term trends and how government funding as a share of total R&D investment in this country has been on a downward trajectory for the last several decades and the slack has only partly been picked up by private investment, what are your concerns about that and are there any reasons for hope? Are there opportunities here for the government to re-engage and serve as a forcing function for some of these winner take all technologies that you’ve written about, like AI?
MS: Sure. So I think our issues that we have to address now as we modernize are somewhat twofold. As you’ve mentioned, we just have to get back to robust investment in research and development. When we see what other countries around the world are doing, particularly a place like China, we certainly have to make sure that in order to be competitive and to ensure that we have not just a robust military and national defense, but a robust economy and science and technology endeavors going on and the companies that follow on from there, we always want to be at the forefront of inventing the next great thing as we have been for so many decades. It’s critical we invest in R&D in a significant investment in those endeavors, but it’s not enough to just invest.
We have to also make sure that we understand the new ways that we can support that. It’s not like, you know Ken, when you and I served I think a lot of it in the military, a lot of military research and development would have come out of the military. Places like DARPA. And although they’re still doing some really incredible research and development, that is not the place where so much of the innovation
is coming from. So much of that is coming out of places like Silicon Valley. And so the military doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel, especially when sometimes when the military nowadays reinvents the wheel, they’re not doing it as well as some of our great technology companies. So we have to make sure that we’re engaged with the great resources we have. And I think we also have to do a little bit of work in some of those areas explaining the great opportunities there are. I think we’ve had some people in some of the great technological companies think that defense research is somewhat, there’s some inertia. It’s not a great place for investment. It’s not where some exciting things are happening.
I think as we move into modernizing our military, we need those views to change because in order for us to really promote our values, our democratic values across the world, in order for us to be good allies to so many of our partners and compete across the world with, quite frankly, the values that China’s promoting that don’t match our values or the values that Russia is promoting that don’t match our democratic values. I think we need to make the case to our great innovators across this country of how important it is that they support this effort to modernize our military and our national security in so much of the innovation that takes place.
ACME GENERAL: I definitely want to talk about modernizing our military and the role that Picatinny in your district is playing. But I want to probe a little more on public/private partnerships because this isn’t just lip service you’re paying. You have written in these priorities to the latest NDAA, right? What are your focus areas for strengthening the value of these partnerships, for ensuring that private companies see the benefit of working with DOD? If I’m not mistaken, COVID-19 was one of the motivators for this in your efforts on the NDAA.
MS: Yes, well, I think, this was something that we’d been talking about since I’ve been in Congress, really modernizing the defense supply chain. But I have to say that in so many other areas the coronavirus pandemic really brought some of these issues to a head as we were looking at so many of the things that we needed here in this country to protect our defense supply chain were coming from elsewhere. The supply chain was broken really by the coronavirus pandemic. And there were some areas where we realized in order to better protect our national defense, we needed to have a better, more robust supply chain, whether that was having several different suppliers or manufacturing things here in the United States. So I’ve joined the House Armed Services Defense Critical Supply Chain Task Force. That’s something that Mike Gallagher and Elissa Slotkin stood up so that we could really deeply examine in a bipartisan way how we can help our defense supply chain. And much of that involves these partnerships that we’ve just been talking about with our military and the great technology companies that we have in this country.
ACME GENERAL: Picatinny is at the tip of the proverbial spear when it comes to these modernization efforts. What have your priorities been in terms of advocating for Picatinny? I know you’ve gotten a couple of things into the NDAA to increase funding for particular areas. Are there any that jump out?
MS: Sure. So as you may know, I’m the Vice Chair of the Tactical Air and Land Subcommittee. That’s the subcommittee of jurisdiction for most of Picatinny’s activities. And as I’ve mentioned, the work at
Picatinny is critical to our national defense, but it’s specifically important to the defense department’s modernization priorities. So a particular note, really with the past two NDAAs, I’ve gotten robust funding for the long range precision fires, funding for innovative means of manufacturing. I was also able to get the Armaments Graduate School on Picatinny Arsenal, get them accredited so that we could really invest in the future of armaments innovation. I have not been certified in all the tongue twisters that come out of Picatinny Arsenal. However, I’m really proud of that work and making sure that we can support the Arsenal in the modernization priorities of tomorrow.
ACME GENERAL: Do you ever get sideways glances as a Navy pilot throwing out terms like long range precision fires?
MS: That’s an Army priority as well! Yes, I have to say that getting up to speed on all of the new Army acronyms has been a challenge for me. But everything goes really smoothly, Ken, until that second week in December when suddenly the Arsenal, the West Point graduates on the Arsenal and I are on opposite sides of the fence. And so we just have that Army/Navy game that we have to get through, but it should be particularly exciting this year because we were playing it in New Jersey.
ACME GENERAL: Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s great. Well, as long as we can leave that on the field.
MS: Exactly! Exactly! And everything’s going to be fine as long as Navy beats Army and then we’ll be able to move forward.
ACME GENERAL: That’s all it takes. So Picatinny has some of the really big, weighty challenges like LRPF. But you’ve also bothered to include some of the more niche tech areas. And I’m wondering how you stay abreast of the bleeding edge of technology and what’s happening with additive and AI and things like that. Is this the result of a team burning the midnight oil or have you developed an abiding interest in the tech that we’re going to need in the coming decades to meet, as you described, China and Russia and these adversaries?
MS: Yes. The answer is all of the above, really. We have a lot of, not just at Picatinny Arsenal, but actually this area has a lot of additive manufacturing, a lot of really high end, high tech retooling. So it’s not just work I do at and for Picatinny Arsenal. The County College of Morris has been doing critical work and supporting some of the really high tech, very specific manufacturing and retooling that we do here. I think a lot of people have this vision of their eighth-grade shop class some of the machines that were in use there. But some of our machining and retooling that we do here now take advanced degrees and then constant retraining as these machines get more and more advanced. And it involves computer programs to operate the machines and stuff.
And we don’t just do it in the defense space. In fact, my district’s known for great companies that do a lot of joints, hip joints, knee joints, like Striker. So this is a center of innovation that crosses into not just the defense platforms, but also many of our medical device companies and others. So this is something that, yes, I’ve become incredibly interested in. Yes, my team’s very interested in it. But I also have a
whole host of people in the district who are very supportive and have a great deal of expertise in this area that really support a lot of the mission in Congress that I have to support this industry.
ACME GENERAL: Your constituent engagement is, it’s like off the charts. I love following it on Twitter because you do the obligatory nods to industry and legislation and all that stuff. But you’re also great at both remembering and reminding us why you’re really there, which is representing the people who sent you. This one jumped out. It’s from yesterday or the day before. “Special congratulations to Steve and Emma, owners of Time for a Bagel, on their new twin grandchildren.” How do you-
MS: Those were great bagels! It’s easy to remember.
ACME GENERAL: How do you strike that balance? That balance between spending what has to be 90% of your time thinking about these weighty geopolitical issues and what the military is going to need to defend the country and remembering who sent you?
MS: Well, I think that combination, there are a lot of things that I regard as my job that if I do my job well the majority of people in the 11th district of New Jersey aren’t going to have to worry about them at all. If I make sure that we have a robust defense, people here at home are going to feel safe. They’re not going to have to worry about if they’re computers or their bank or their military or their state department has been hacked because I can work to provide the ability to keep all of those things safe and secure. And I regard part of my job as helping people sleep at night, right? Worrying about some of these things so they don’t have to.
But then there’s also the day-to-day lives of people in my district that I have to really lead on legislation that’s going to make their lives here at home easier and that is going to impact their life directly. Like whether it’s their taxes or school funding or vaccine funding or getting through the pandemic. And they need to, I need to deliver for everyone on that. And to do that I need to hear from them. We do a lot of small business vox and I can’t tell you how many times we write legislation in Washington for PPP loans and it’s not until I’m on the ground in New Jersey that I can directly see, is this working? Are the people that need these loans getting the loans? Are those loans funding the things that they need to fund? And sometimes the answer is, yes, they’re great. And sometimes the answer is, you know you really got to fix it. And we’ve done that too. We’ve been able to write new legislation to make it better. So I think hearing from people in the district is critical to making sure that the work I do in Washington is really leading to the best possible results.
ACME GENERAL: I got to believe it ultimately comes down to trust, right? That’s what the representative in representative democracy means. The folks, Steve and Emma, can’t be experts in everything that you need to vote on and they have to trust you to have their best interest at heart.
MS: You know I’ve thought a lot about that because I couldn’t agree more. And I have to say, I think in my younger days when you would hear, I just want to have a representative I can drink a beer with. I think I would be a little dismissive of that thinking, well, I just want a representative that can vote on
things and understands our national security or something. But at the end of the day, you’re exactly right. You can’t know what all of the things that are going to come up in Congress in one term, let alone two or three. You can’t sit there and vote for a person and know exactly what they’re going to have to weigh in on. If you could maybe you could say, oh, this term in Congress this is going to happen. So I’m going to need a health expert or a national defense expert or a transportation infrastructure expert, but you just don’t know.
So what you do need to know from your representative is that they’re going to look at issues in a way that you think is fair and just and is going to put you front of mind. That somebody understands what it is to be a working mom. Or understands what it is to make sure that you can afford your healthcare. Or understands what it’s like to have somebody like my husband, who commutes in and out of the city every day and how disruptive it can be when that commute starts to get worse and worse and how many and lacrosse games for your kids are missed. So you do need to elect a representative, I think shorthand, for making sure your representative understands you and is going to vote in a way that you think puts you at center of mind is somebody can have a beer with. Somebody that you think you could really connect with and is going to represent you well in Washington.
ACME GENERAL: With that in mind and given your role on the House Armed Services Committee, last question, and it’s a heavy one. What is your assessment of the decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan eminently?
MS: I think my assessment is, quite frankly, a lot like probably the president’s assessment at the end of the day. I would not have done it in this way. However, given that the former administration had made a commitment and given that I think a commitment from the United States of America should mean something and given that if we did not fulfill that, I think the level of violence in Afghanistan had we decided not to pull out would have gone up possibly exponentially. So the choice was either at this time pull out, make a commitment to withdraw or fulfill our commitment to withdraw. Or really come up with a troop plan that was going to be able to keep people in Afghanistan safe in light of the fact that we were expecting then an upturn in violence.
And then looking back on how long we have been in Afghanistan my sense is that everything that has a military solution has been solved. So we have really rooted out Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. We’ve done the combating violent extremism mission. We’ve kept the United States safe and secure at home from terrorism that was planned. And the leadership was in Afghanistan. We’ve been able to stop that. But then there are other things that the military solution simply, you know, I think we haven’t seen a stable democracy in Afghanistan like we would like to see. And so I’m hoping that by moving the military out, still keeping a robust diplomatic presence, we can see better results. But after 20 years of this war, I think we’ve accomplished everything we could with the military solution. And now it’s time for us to look beyond our fighting force, our combat force in Afghanistan.
ACME GENERAL: Well thank you for that reflection, Mikie. And thanks for joining us on Accelerate Defense. It’s been great having you.
MS: Well, Ken, I really appreciate it. Thanks so much for having me.
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