The Buzz

Inside the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Plan for the Pentagon

Interested in the National Defense Authorization Act, the bill that comes out every year, consisting of hundreds upon hundreds of pages?  Well, not many Americans are.  But for the U.S. defense establishment and the policymakers, appropriators, and bean-counters who are smack dab in the middle of how the U.S. military and Department of Defense plan for the future, the NDAA is the guiding document. 

As is typical with legislation circulating in the U.S. Congress, both the House and the Senate have their own versions of the NDAA, and it will take a considerable amount of time for the two to come together and negotiate a final, comprehensive bill before President Obama’s signature.  The House Armed Services Committee, led by Rep. Buck McKeon, released its own draft of the bill earlier in May—passing the committee unanimously and getting through the House on a lopsided 325-98 vote.

Now, it’s the Senate’s term to dabble.  After a mark-up session closed to the public, the Senate Armed Services Committee finally released its own bill to the American people earlier this week.  And, while the legislation is a typical 735 pages (excluding the annexes at the end), there are a few topics that are important enough to highlight.

1- Ban on Retiring the A-10: The Senate Armed Services Committee has spoken: the Defense Department is not allowed to use any funding for Fiscal Year 2015 to retire, decommission, or prepare to decommission the infamous A-10 close-attack aircraft. 

The “warthog” has been a prized possession for U.S. ground units in Afghanistan—particularly when those units come under unexpected fire from insurgents—so the aircraft has a sizable constituency in Congress.  Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Saxby Chambliss, Kelly Ayotte, and Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin are only some of the lawmakers who oppose the Pentagon’s request to retire the fleet completely.  If Congress has its way, DoD will have to find another way to save a couple billion dollars.

2- Gitmo Back in the Spotlight: If the controversial release of five senior Taliban commanders from the Guantanamo detention facility for Sgt. Bow Bergdahl last weekend failed to reignite the debate over the prison, this bill could. 

In stark contrast to the House of Representatives, a majority of whom want the prison to remain open indefinitely, the Senate Armed Services Committee has adopted a unique formula that would allow President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to finally shutter the detention facility.  It will just take longer than a simple Executive Order by the White House: before the President could close the prison, both houses of Congress would have the opportunity to vote on the Pentagon’s plan.  In effect, the measure would allow those opposed to any transfers the chance to register their disapproval.  This section of the bill appears to be a win-win for both sides—providing the President with added authority to make good on a vital campaign promise, while providing those in Congress with the power of the vote to keep their political capital.

3- Restrictions on security assistance to foreign nations: The United States prides itself on being a nation where democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, and accountability are guiding principles.  The Senate Armed Services Committee wants to make sure that remains the case. 

Section 1202 prohibits DoD from using any funds for the development or training of a foreign security force if there is “credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”  In effect, this means that an entire unit would be penalized for the actions of a single member.  The language is identical to what is commonly referred to as the “Leahy Laws,” first introduced in 1997 by author Sen. Patrick Leahy to ensure that the United States does not inadvertently contribute to a partner military’s human rights violations. 

4- Support the Moderate Syrian Opposition: In what is sure to grab some interesting headlines and commentary from observers of the Syrian conflict, the Senate Armed Services Committee has included a provision that would explicitly authorize the Defense Secretary “to provide equipment, supplies, training, and defense services to assist vetted elements of the Syrian opposition,” as long as those units are vetted by the United States ahead of time and Congress is kept in-the-loop.  This could be a potentially game-changing element for the Free Syrian Army and the Supreme Military Council, if in fact the Obama administration decides to ramp up defense support in order to level the playing field on the ground.

5- Don’t Forget Afghanistan: Just because U.S. forces are scheduled to leave Afghan territory by the end of 2016 does not mean that the country will be forgotten in Washington.  The Senate Armed Services Committee wants full and regular reports from the Obama administration on how the Afghan National Security Forces are performing, what the U.S. hopes to accomplish in Afghanistan in the future, an assessment of the security environment in Afghanistan, whether the ANSF can handle that security situation, and whether the Government of Afghanistan is contributing more money from its own budget for its security forces.  In sum: the Senate wants the president to keep Congress in mind on any issues that are Afghanistan-related.