The Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday advanced the $740.5 billion defense bill for fiscal 2021, including a 3% pay raise for the military and controversial provisions banning the use of troops against peaceful protesters and calling for renaming bases honoring Confederate leaders.
The committee's $740.5 billion proposal for the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act -- up from about $738 this year -- also includes measures to enhance the Defense Department's ability to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
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The 3% pay raise, slightly lower than this year's 3.1% bump, is in line with the Trump administration's request and is expected to be included in the final passage of the bill. That’s despite initial fears that the estimated $3 trillion allocated to cope with the novel coronavirus might put a dent in defense spending.
The proposed bill also includes new authorizations to continue 30 existing bonuses and specialty pays.
The 3% increase would amount to about $860 a year for junior enlisted troops, and about $1,500 more for senior enlisted troops and junior officers.
Amendments passed by voice vote in the committee and attached to the NDAA proposal could be seen as a challenge to President Donald Trump, who favored a stronger military response to the protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police and announced Wednesday via Twitter his opposition to renaming bases.
However, the amendments on the use of the military against protesters and renaming bases are several steps away from becoming law and could be sidetracked in the lengthy process leading to final passage of the NDAA -- even before facing the possibility of a Trump veto.
The $740.5 billion proposed for defense essentially matches the president's request of $740 billion overall, but differs -- as usual -- on the specifics of how the money is to be spent.
It also included a major new initiative. The committee's proposal would create a Pacific Deterrence Initiative, similar to the European Deterrence Initiative, to focus on countering China with $1.4 billion in funding for fiscal 2021 and $5.5 billion the next year.
The bill is "to its core bipartisan, reflecting equal input from Republicans and Democrats alike," Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the committee's chairman, said in a statement.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, the ranking committee member, said the bill "provides our troops with a well-deserved pay raise and tools to protect the health and well-being of our forces and their families."
The proposed active-duty end strengths for the services are: 485,000 for the Army; 346,730 for the Navy; 180,000 for the Marines; and 333,475 for the Air Force.
The committee's summary of the bill said the end strengths are projections and added a cautionary note that they could be changed "due to the current outlook regarding potential impacts of COVID-19 on recruitment and basic training capacity."
The House Armed Services Committee is expected to begin its own markup of the NDAA on July 1. The markup could be contentious, as more than 20 House Democrats have already said they will press for cuts in defense spending.
The differences between the House and Senate versions of the NDAA will then have to be hashed out in a House-Senate conference committee before going to Trump for approval against a deadline of Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year.
The Senate committee's proposal for the so-called "war budget," or Overseas Contingency Operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, is $69 billion within the overall $740.5 billion and about the same as proposed by the Defense Department.
In terms of strategy, the committee's summary said the goal of the spending proposal is to fulfill the objectives of the National Defense Strategy aimed at countering Russia and China -- with particular emphasis this year on China.
The bill is intended "to send a strong signal to the Chinese Communist Party that America is deeply committed to defending our interests in the Indo-Pacific," the summary said.
The bill also "prohibits divestment of A-10 aircraft," extending the life of the close-air support "Warthogs" that the Air Force has repeatedly attempted to mothball.
To combat COVID-19, the bill focuses on improving and modernizing DoD supply chains to enhance the timely delivery of personal protective equipment and gear, and promote their manufacture in the U.S.
"The ongoing pandemic exposed and exacerbated weaknesses in the supply chain, and the NDAA works to repair these gaps, improve resiliency of the supply chain and strengthen the Defense Industrial Base as a whole," according to the summary.
In testimony Wednesday to the House Armed Services Committee, Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said that upward of $10 billion in separate supplemental funding would be needed to reimburse defense contractors for their COVID-related costs.
The Senate committee's bill also puts a renewed emphasis on countering small drones, or unmanned aerial systems, with a proposal to increase "funding for these efforts totaling $73 million above the president's request."
In a teleconference Wednesday sponsored by the Middle East Institute, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said drone swarms are an increasing concern in his area of operations.
He said he has seen a proliferation of small unmanned vehicles used by various factions, and "right now, we're on the wrong side of the equation" in countering them.
"I worry about our ability to protect against swarms," he added.
On Afghanistan, the Senate committee's bill includes "a sense of the Senate expressing concerns about the risks of a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. military, diplomatic, and intelligence personnel from Afghanistan and the need to ensure such decisions are conditions-based."
As happens every year, the bill would prohibit the transfer or release of any of the remaining 40 prisoners at the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility to the United States, and also prohibit their transfer or release to Libya, Somalia, Syria or Yemen.
In addition, the bill would prohibit any attempt to close or abandon Guantanamo or give up control of the base to Cuba.
In another annual ritual, the bill would again bar a new round of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, a perennial fear of senators and representatives with bases in their states or districts.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com.
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