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    By Megan Mowery

    WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s second pick to be the top civilian authority overseeing the U.S. Navy sailed through his confirmation hearing Tuesday.

    Lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously agreed to support Richard Spencer for the role, and his nomination is expected to reach the full Senate for consideration by August.

    Spencer spent the hearing emphasizing his 36 years of business experience and service as a Marine helicopter pilot. He agreed with committee members on top issues, including the need to remove federal budget caps that officials say have negatively impacted military readiness and cost overruns in weapons systems.

    Spencer testified that the Navy cannot reach its goal of a 355-ship fleet with the Budget Control Act, which set limits on spending by the federal government, in place. Further, he said, lawmakers shouldn’t get held up on the number 355 and that emerging technologies could create a Navy just as strong at 350 ships.

    “The Budget Control Act has wreaked havoc on our readiness, the impacts on the lives of our sailors and Marines,” Spencer said.

    Another area of emphasis during the hearing was cost overruns on expensive Pentagon programs, like the Ford-class aircraft carrier and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, questioned Spencer on how he plans to solve the issue.

    Richard Spencer (cnas.org)

    “Senator, my career has been steeped in accountability, and I can tell you right now the accountability starts right here,” Spencer said.

    Keeping with Navy tradition and stepping away from the Trump administration’s policies, Spencer acknowledged the realities of climate change in a response to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). He acknowledged the damage rising water levels can inflict on the Navy’s infrastructure.

    “Senator, the Navy, in my briefings, is totally aware of rising water issues, storm issues, et cetera,” Spencer said. “We must protect our infrastructure and I will work hard to make sure that we are keeping an eye on that because without the infrastructure, we lose readiness.”

    Spencer also touched on another hot-button issue of the Trump presidency: the U.S.-Russia relationship.

    “Russia is a threat in many ways to this country…We have to stand strong, we have to have avenues of communication open with our adversaries,” Spencer said. “When it comes to professional actions on the seas, one would hope that in the military sector there is professionalism that spreads to even our adversaries that we can have communications in that regard.”

    Spencer, who is currently managing director of Fall Creek Management, a consulting firm in Wyoming, has faced an easier path to nomination than many other Trump military nominees.

    Philip Bilden, Trump’s first choice for Navy Secretary, withdrew from consideration of the position because of financial interests that he would have had to divest from. Vincent Viola, Trump’s first nominee for Army Secretary, also declined due to business ties, and Mark Green, Trump’s second pick, withdrew after criticism of his views towards LGBT and Muslim persons.

    By Megan Mowery

    WASHINGTON – The U.S. State Department on Tuesday again placed China among the worst global offenders in human trafficking and forced labor, stating that the country “is not making significant efforts” to thwart the practice and hold offenders accountable.

    The ranking comes in the 17th annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which details the efforts of countries to end the sale of roughly 20 million persons across the globe for forced sex or labor.

    China joins Iran, North Korea, Russia, Zimbabwe and Syria, among 18 other nations, in the report’s lowest tier (Tier 3) for holding fewer offenders accountable in the past year, confronting forced labor cases as administrative issues rather than criminal and forcibly repatriating North Korean citizens without screening them for signs of forced labor.

    Also, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during a ceremony at the State Department, China was downgraded in this year’s report “because it has not taken serious steps to end its own complicity in trafficking — including forced laborers from North Korea that are located in China.”

    “When state actors or non-state actors use human trafficking, it can become a threat to our national security,” said Tillerson.

    “North Korea, for instance, depends on forced labor to generate illicit sources of revenue in industries including construction, mining and food processing. An estimated fifty to eighty thousand North Korean citizens are working overseas as forced laborers, primarily in Russia and China, many of them working 20 hours a day. Their pay does not come to them directly. It goes to the Government of Korea, which confiscates most of that, obviously.”

    China was on the the Tier 2 status for three years prior, after being bumped up from Tier 3 in 2013.

    China protested the designation and the U.S. using its own domestic laws to label international players. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said Tuesday that China has made efforts to “crack down on human trafficking and has achieved clear results.”

    Responding to China’s protest, Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Susan Coppedge said the U.S. will “continue working with all governments that are ranked in the report, and sometimes there is initial displeasure with that ranking.”

    “The report is seen worldwide as a real factual and accurate analysis of what’s going on in countries such as China, and there are recommendations for China as there are for other ranked countries,” Coppedge said.

    Afghanistan, Malaysia and Qatar moved up to Tier 2, which designates countries that do not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, from the Tier 2 Watch List.

    Myanmar was upgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List, designating nations that do not meet minimum U.S. standards but are making significant efforts to do so, from Tier 3 status, which designates countries that do not meet minimum U.S. standards and are not making efforts to do so, the previous year.

    Of the 187 countries assessed in the report, 36 are rated on Tier 1, while 80 are on Tier 2, 45 are on the Tier 2 Watch List, and 23 are on Tier 3. There were 21 downgrades from the year before and 27 upgrades.

    The State Department removed Myanmar and Iraq from the list of countries that recruit and use child soldiers. This decision came with protests from human rights groups after Reuters broke the story Monday ahead of the report’s release.

    “Taking Burma [Myanmar] and Iraq off the list when they continue to use child soldiers is both contrary to U.S. law and harms children still in the ranks,” Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

    Under the 2008 Child Soldier Prevention Act, a country can only be removed from the list and military assistance reinstated if it can “ensure that no children are recruited, conscripted, or otherwise compelled to serve as child soldiers.”

    U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, center, flanked by Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump on his left and Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State Susan Coppedge pose for a photo with the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Heroes at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. (Photo: U.S. State Department)

    Tillerson noted the difficulty of eradicating human trafficking as it has evolved since the report was first commissioned in 2001.

    “Human trafficking is becoming more nuanced and more difficult to identify,” Tillerson said. “Much of these activities are going underground, and they’re going online.”

    Tillerson was joined by Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump’s daughter and senior adviser. She has made combating human trafficking one of her signature issues.

    “As a mother, this is much more than a policy priority.  It is a clarion call to action in defense of the vulnerable, the abused, and the exploited,” said Trump.

    During a visit to Rome last month, she met privately with a group of African women who had been trafficked into prostitution. In February and May she hosted anti-trafficking events at the White House.

    Chinese authorities confirmed last month that the government had detained a labor rights activist investigating conditions at a factory making Ivanka Trump-branded shoes. The U.S. State Department has called for his immediate release.

    By Megan Mowery

    WASHINGTON – Two Republican lawmakers introduced a bill Thursday that would mandate a 355-ship Navy, the force size that the service has said is needed to counter growing capabilities from competitors China and Russia.

    Sen. Rocker Wicker (R-Miss.) and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) introduced the bipartisan “Securing the Homeland by Increasing our Power on the Seas (SHIPS) Act” to add 79 submarines, aircraft carriers, amphibious ships and destroyers to the nation’s current 276 ships. It could take 20 to 25 years to reach the goal, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, the lawmakers said.

    The policy mandate would be contingent upon Congress appropriating enough funding. Under the proposed legislation, some of the ships would be newly built, while others would be modernized ships that are currently out of commission.

    “We’re talking about protecting the nation and allowing commerce to go unfettered across the globe,” Wicker said during a morning news conference. He noted that the act would create “thousands and thousands of manufacturing jobs” across all 50 states, while maintaining that boost is about “national security first and foremost.”

    President Donald Trump had promised while campaigning to boost manufacturing jobs nationally and also raise the Navy to a force size exceeding 350 ships. Trump’s 2018 budget request, however, only proposed a force increase of eight ships  a boost that had already been planned under former President Barack Obama.

    “Our adversaries are quickly outpacing us with naval capacity,” Wittman said. “And, it’s not just a single adversary like we had during the Cold War with Russia. Today, it is Russia, it is China, it is North Korea, it is Iran. Add those threats up, and we see a big impact in demand for what the U.S. needs to have available to counter those forces around the world.”

    Sen. Rocker Wicker (R-Miss.) and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) introduced the SHIPS Act at the Capitol on Thursday. (Megan Mowery/ TMN intern)

    The proposed ship to boost the Navy’s presence isn’t only about being prepared to engage in a potential conflict, Wittman said, that but also about maintaining the ability for the U.S. to engage diplomatically with other nations and respond to humanitarian crises.

    The Navy’s most recent Force Structure Assessment recommended a force size of at least 355 ships — to include 12 carriers, 104 large surface combatants, 52 small surface combatants, 38 amphibious ships and 66 submarines.

    If passed, the SHIPS Act would require funding not only for the building of ships, but also the added costs for additional sailors, maintenance and ammunition.

    The lawmakers, who both represent states that are heavily involved in the shipbuilding industry, said they think the funding for the first year of the bill will be easily secured. The SHIPS Act is currently co-sponsored by bipartisan groups of 16 lawmakers in the Senate and eight members of the House.

    “We are fully capable of paying for the first step,” Wicker said, adding that final figures from the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower will be released before July 4.

    The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower released its markup of the annual defense policy bill (National Defense Authorization Act) Thursday, which called for an additional five ships to Trump’s eight-ship request. The proposed additional five ships an additional destroyer, two littoral combat ships, one amphibious dock landing ship and one expeditionary support base.

    By Megan Mowery

    WASHINGTON – A missing Navy sailor was found alive aboard a guided missile cruiser on Thursday following a week-long search for him in the Philippine Sea after he was presumed to have gone overboard June 8.

    Petty Officer 3rd Class Peter Mims, 23, was thought to have fallen off USS Shiloh as it conducted routine operations 180 miles east of Okinawa, Japan. The event triggered a 50-hour search by the U.S. Navy with help from the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Japanese Coast Guard.

    The ocean search was suspended at midnight on Sunday, but the crew of the Shiloh continued their search on board the vessel. The Navy’s 7th Fleet said in a statement that the circumstances surrounding Mims’ disappearance are under investigation.

    “We are thankful to have found our missing shipmate and appreciate all the hard work of our Sailors and Japanese partners in searching for him,” Rear Adm. Charles Williams, commander, Carrier Strike Group 5 and Task Force 70, said in the statement. “I am relieved that this Sailor’s family will not be joining the ranks of Gold Star Families that have sacrificed so much for our country.”

    Petty Officer 3rd Class Peter Mims aboard USS Shiloh. (Spec. Pat Morrissey/U.S. Navy)

    The Navy Times, citing two unnamed officials, reported that Mims was found hidden in one of the engine rooms. The Navy said Mims will be transferred to the USS Ronald Reagan carrier for a medical evaluation.

    Pacific Fleet spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Knight said any reprimand Mims faces will be determined by the command leadership depending on the investigation findings.

    Mims’ disappearance would have been the second time in recent days that a Navy sailor has fallen overboard. Fire Controlman 2nd Class Christopher Clavin is thought to have fallen from the USS Normandy guided-missile cruiser 80 miles off the coast of North Carolina June 6. The Navy has since called off the search for Clavin.

    Mims enlisted in the Navy in Feb. 2014 and reported to USS Shiloh that August. He is a Gas Turbines Systems Technician 3rd Class. He was last promoted in August 2015 and has earned the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, Navy Marine Corps Overseas Service Ribbon and Sea Service Ribbon.