Senate Armed Services set for contentious authorization debate

Senate Armed Services set for contentious authorization debate

The Senate Armed Services Committee will begin the process of assembling the massive annual defense policy bill for fiscal 2022 this week, amid roiling debates in a number of areas affecting the military.

These include a potential, major reworking of the military code of justice, proposals to thwart extremism in the ranks and arguments over the number of jets and ships the Pentagon plans to buy.

Subcommittee markups begin Monday evening and go through Tuesday, with the full committee convening on Wednesday to consider the bill.

Since all but two of these meetings will take place behind closed doors — the Readiness and Management Support and the Personnel panels will hold open sessions on Tuesday — most of the decisions won’t be made public until the committee publishes the bill and the accompanying report later this fall.

But Armed Services members are sure to bring up a number of topics.

A debate over the military justice system could be among the most contentious in this year’s markup. 

Having resisted for roughly a decade making changes to how allegations of sexual assault crimes are handled in the military, Pentagon leaders this year, for the first time, acceded to a long-standing congressional push to overhaul the courts-martial system. 

The brass agreed it was time to create special prosecutors’ offices and empower them, rather than military commanders, to decide whether sexual assault and related crimes, such as domestic abuse, should be prosecuted. 

However, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democrat who chairs the Personnel Subcommittee, wants the new prosecutors’ offices to handle more crimes than that — including nearly all felonies, except for those that are military-unique, such as desertion.

Gillibrand has said she will offer an amendment to the panel’s defense authorization bill that would implement the broader change. Not every member of the committee has stated their position on the issue. But a majority of the panel has indicated backing for Gillibrand’s proposal, though at least one — Angus King, an independent from Maine —may be reconsidering, according to a recent New York Times report.

Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed, the committee’s chair, and Oklahoma Republican James M. Inhofe, the ranking member, agree with the military leaders that the change should be limited. 

The debate should be impassioned. Reed and Gillibrand have squared off publicly over this issue on the Senate floor. Reed has blocked Gillibrand’s efforts to move her bill on the subject to a Senate floor vote.

Whether or not Gillibrand gets her measure into the committee’s bill, she told reporters on Jan. 15 that she will seek a floor vote on her bill as a stand-alone measure. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, has promised her that, she said, and the vote will probably occur in the fall.

What to do, if anything, about extremism in the ranks is likely to be another contentious issue. The involvement of veterans, and even a handful of active-duty servicemembers in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, has some lawmakers looking for ways to curtail extremism, particularly white supremacy, in the ranks. (Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III ordered every unit to conduct a one-day discussion of extremism shortly after his confirmation in January, and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has noted that even a tiny percentage of the Pentagon’s 2 million troops would mean that there are potentially thousands of extremists in the ranks.)

Some members, including Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, have voiced resentment at the suggestion that the military has an extremism issue, pointing out that the military, integrated since 1948, is one of the most diverse organizations in America.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has taken aim at critical race theory, an academic approach to reexamining how racial bias has been encoded in law and other social institutions. The topic of critical race theory and the military has already arisen in appearances by Austin and Milley before the Senate and House Armed Services panels, and Cotton and other Republicans may push to include language to bar it from being taught in the military.

As they do every year, lawmakers will tweak the number of big-ticket items, like ships and planes, that the Pentagon has requested. The Biden administration requested fiscal 2022 funding for eight ships, a figure that’s drawn criticism from both Republicans and Democrats who argue that the fleet must be grown faster to keep up with challenges posed by Chinese ambitions in the Pacific region.

The fiscal 2022 Defense spending bill recently approved by House appropriators would add funding for a second Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and members of the Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee will certainly have additional input.

It is unclear whether senators will increase the number of F-35s the Defense Department can buy above the 85 the Pentagon requested. In years past, lawmakers routinely added about a dozen of the fifth-generation stealth fighters to the Pentagon’s request. But this year, Congress may choose to spend on other jets to round out its air fleet, and earlier this month the Air Force listed 12 F-15EXs (modernized versions of an older fighter jet) but no F-35s on its unfunded list. (The Navy did ask for five more F-35s in its unfunded list, but it was not a very high priority.)

With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan almost complete, Congress will likely look to step up its oversight of U.S. support for Afghan troops, loath to see the country fall under complete control of the Taliban.

There is also considerable momentum on the Hill to push the military to do more to counter Chinese military advances. The Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a program to provide more military equipment and technology to the region, may see increased funding levels above the Pentagon’s $5.1 billion request, with a particular focus on missile defense capabilities in Guam.

Members of the Cybersecurity Subcommittee may also push the Defense Department to accelerate both its defensive and offensive capabilities, particularly in the wake of recent cyber intrusions such as the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack, which shut down a major gasoline distribution pipeline for nearly a week in May.

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