Bill supports troops, military families and national security

Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the conference report to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2010. Passage of this conference report fulfills one of the most basic duties of the Congress and is vital to the mission of the Department of Defense.

On the critical national security issues confronting our nation today, this bill gets it right. Importantly, the conference report provides several major victories for our troops and their families, who are the cornerstone of our national defense. And the bill strikes the right balance between our focus on the immediate fights in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq and the long-term needs of our military. 

After eight years of war, we must sustain our efforts to restore military readiness in order to meet current military challenges and prepare for the future.

The bill provides $11 billion for Army reset, $2 billion for Marine Corps reset, and $6.9 billion to address equipment shortfalls in the National Guard and Reserve. Addressing urgent issues such as dilapidated military barracks and keeping defense facilities in good working order, the bill adds $350 million for Army training barracks construction and $200 million to support National Guard and Reserve facilities and infrastructure. 

To boost readiness and reduce the strain on our forces, the bill increases the size of the military by 30,000 Army troops, 8,100 Marines, 14,650 Air Force personnel, and 2,477 Navy sailors in fiscal 2010, as requested by the president. The bill also authorizes an additional 30,000 Army troops in fiscal 2011 and 2012.  

This bill reflects our efforts to recognize 2009 as the Year of the Military Family. To improve the quality of life for our troops and their families, the bill provides a 3.4 percent pay raise for all service members, continuing our efforts to reduce the pay raise gap between the uniformed services and the private sector. The bill extends the authority for the Defense Department to offer bonuses and incentive pay, expands TRICARE health coverage to reserve component members and their families for 180 days prior to mobilization, prohibits fee increases on TRICARE inpatient care for one year, and also provides $2.2 billion for family housing programs to support and expand the quality housing our military families deserve. 

To improve the benefits available to wounded warriors, the bill provides travel and transportation for three designated persons, including non-family members, to visit hospitalized service members. The bill also enables seriously injured service members to use a non-medical attendant for help with daily living or during travel for medical treatment. 

The war in Afghanistan is a critical mission that is finally gaining the attention it demands. The president’s March Afghanistan strategy, which calls for an increase in military and civilian resources and also recognizes the vital importance of Pakistan’s efforts in the region, is a welcome development. To ensure our strategy in both countries is effective and achieves the intended goals within well-defined timelines, the bill requires the president to assess U.S. efforts and report on progress. 

To build partnership capacity, the bill provides funds to train and equip the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and authorizes the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Fund to improve the counterinsurgency capabilities of Pakistan’s security forces. The bill improves accountability and oversight of U.S. assistance by requiring the president to establish a system to register and track all U.S. defense articles provided to the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The bill also allows funds to be used to support the Afghanistan National Solidarity Program, a very successful Afghan-led development program that has reached more than 20,000 Afghan villages, and provides funds to begin a program to help reintegrate former Taliban fighters who have renounced violence against the Government of Afghanistan and bring them back into Afghan society.

As we redeploy forces from Iraq and build up forces in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense must manage many difficult logistical challenges. To ensure our plans are sound, use realistic assumptions, and carefully assess risk, the bill requires the secretary of defense to submit a report on the responsible redeployment of U.S. forces out of Iraq. The bill also permits the secretary of defense to transfer certain equipment to the Iraqi Security Forces to ensure the government of Iraq can address internal security challenges on its own. 

Each year, members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees work very hard to make this the best bill possible for our military and for our nation. This is a good bill that will support our troops in the field and their families at home, meet our nation’s immediate military requirements, and preserve our ability to deter and respond to future threats. I look forward to Senate action on this measure so we can send this defense bill to the president as soon as possible.

Skelton is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.