This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON – Whether the topic is military justice or military camouflage, Super Hornets or small-diameter bombs, base closures or weapons proliferation, provisions backed by area lawmakers have progressed in the House and Senate defense bills.
Sections of the Senate Armed Services bill related to sexual assault prevention and prosecution – advocated by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and others – got much of the publicity last week, but other lawmakers also made their mark in that panel’s Defense Department authorization bill, as well as its counterpart approved by the U.S. House.
For example, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo – like McCaskill, a member of the Senate panel – helped gain approval for provisions (or report language) related to Boeing Co.’s Super Hornet, the small-diameter bomb (made in St. Charles), military mail, and cyberattacks.
And U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, a member of the House Armed Services panel, pushed a successful amendment to eliminate duplication in the 10 different combat uniforms (including camouflage variations) for the armed services. He also backed a “strategic ports initiative” that may benefit development in southern Illinois.
“With sequestration cuts looming at Scott Air Force Base and other sites through southern Illinois, the taxpayers can't afford this kind of waste,” Enyart said of “the bipartisan effort to save money by streamlining the uniforms policy for the military.”
Enyart commented after the House – paying little heed to a White House veto threat – voted 315-108 on Friday to approve its massive $638 billion defense authorization bill that would block a proposed new base-closing round, prevent President Barack Obama from closing the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and limit White House efforts to reduce further the number of nuclear weapons.
However, the House bill – backed by every member of the Missouri and southern Illinois congressional delegations – would mostly mirror the Senate committee’s action last week on efforts to deter sexual violence in the military. McCaskill had been among the lead sponsors of those provisions, which also were supported by Blunt in committee.
The White House backed such provisions, which included stripping commanders of their ability to overturn guilty verdicts in sexual assault cases, establishing a minimum sentence of dismissal for personnel convicted of such assaults, and expanding legal counsel available to victims of abuse.
Describing sexual violence as “a self-inflicted wound that has no place in the military," U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and some other Democratic lawmakers tried to amend the bill to allow victims to choose whether the Office of Chief Prosecutor or the commander would decide whether the case would go to trial. But that amendment failed in a 225-194 vote.
In a statement, McCaskill said the Senate panel’s provisions related to sexual assault prevention and prosecution “are historic, and will fundamentally change the way the military justice system treats these cowardly crimes-with better protections for survivors, and much stronger accountability for perpetrators.”
Blunt said the Senate committee’s bill – which would authorize about $13 billion less in military expenditures than the House bill – “is an important step in the right direction to give our Armed Services the resources they need to meet their critical mission defending America.” He and others had complained about the impacts of sequestration cutbacks on the military.
Enyart, a former adjutant-general of the Illinois National Guard, called the House legislation “a strong bill that funds our troops, draws down the military presence in Afghanistan, eliminates military waste and is good for the southern Illinois economy.”
That is partly because the bill would ban the use of funds to “propose, plan for or execute” an additional round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). Enyart called that “good news for Scott Air Force Base in the short term” because that provision sends “a clear message that there is no interest in additional military base closures in the near future.”
On the topic of the continued presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, U.S. Reps. William “Lacy” Clay, D-St. Louis, John Shimkus, R-Collinsville and Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, Ill., voted with the majority to approve an amendment urging that a vote in Congress be held to authorize any U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after Dec. 31, 2014 – Obama’s target date for bringing most troops home.
Voting no on that amendment were Enyart and U.S. Reps. Anne Wagner, R-Ballwin, and Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth.
Should Navy invest in more F/A-18 Super Hornets?
Both the House and Senate versions of the defense bill would authorize – but not appropriate – expenditures for aircraft, weapons, ships, personnel and the war in Afghanistan in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. Differences between the two versions of the defense bill will have be worked out in a House-Senate conference committee.
Blunt said that he inserted language in the committee report on the bill that “sends a clear signal” to the Navy that he the committee is concerned with the delay in production of the F-35C tactical strike fighter, viewed as the successor to the Hornet. The message is that the Navy should consider buying more Hornets – which are assembled at Boeing’s Hazelwood plant – to fill the gap in the transition.
According to a Senate source, the Senate bill went along with the president’s budget request for no additional Hornets but for 21 EA-18G Growler jets – an aircraft similar to the Super Hornet that is also assembled at the Hazelwood plant. Last year’s defense bill had authorized purchase of 26 Super Hornets and 12 Growlers.
There are concerns in Congress about the cost and maturity of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the nation’s most expensive weapons system. In May, the Pentagon told Congress that the three versions of the strike fighter would reach “initial operational capability” in 2015 for the Marine Corps, in 2016 for the Air Force and in 2019 for the Navy. By then, the services will have enough of the aircraft on hand to wage war.
Meanwhile, the Navy is upgrading some of its F/A-18 Hornets and Growlers to improve the older aircraft’s survivability, electronics package and overall performance. The improvements include design work, engineering and enhancements to the avionics.
The new House-passed defense bill includes “additional funding for advance procurement of the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet,” according to the House Armed Services committee.
Next-generation bomber, small-diameter bomb
As a new member of the Senate panel, Blunt helped add provisions – or language in the committee report that provides guidance to the Pentagon – that would:
- Require the Air Force secretary to brief the Senate and House defense panels on the status of the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) program, which is built in St. Charles. The briefing would occur no later than 90 days after the defense bill becomes law.
- Send a message, in report language, that developing a next-generation Long Range Strike Bomber is critical for national security. The current B-2 bombers fly out of Whiteman Air Force Base in western Missouri.
- Direct the president to prepare a plan to prevent the further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and North Africa. That directive is from a bipartisan amendment sponsored by Blunt and U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
- Authorize the Pentagon to work with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to ensure military voters get their absentee ballots in a timely manner.
- Require the Pentagon to develop a strategy for using the National Guard and reserve to support cyber missions of the U.S. Cyber Command. Blunt said this provides the authority needed for the Missouri National Guard to help defend Missouri’s Ft. Leonard Wood from harmful cyber intrusions.