OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Suicide rate among active troops rises | Armed Services head predicts budget fight
Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: The suicide rate among active-duty service members increased in 2019, the Pentagon said Thursday, adding to fears that feelings of isolation due to the coronavirus may push those figures higher.
The Defense Department’s second annual report on suicide found there were 342 active-duty suicides last year, a rate of 25.9 per 100,000 service members. The previous year the rate was 24.8, and before that it was 21.9.
Suicide rates in the National Guard and Reserve remained stable in 2019.
Overall, 498 service members died by suicide last year.
Army worries about troops: The report comes as the Army worries about the increase in suicides since March, when many people were told to stay home due to COVID-19 and the Pentagon began to limit movement of forces.
The Associated Press first reported that military suicide deaths since early spring were up as much as 20 percent compared with the same period in 2019.
Among Army active-duty troops, that increase was around 30 percent, with 114 suicides as of Aug. 31, compared to 88 last year.
Suicides peaked in July with 35, CNN found.
Following the report’s release, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said in a statement that the service is working to improve access to behavioral health care “in the face of additional stress of a pandemic.”
But Pentagon cautions jumping to conclusions: When asked if COVID-19 is affecting military suicides, Defense Suicide Prevention Office Director Karen Orvis said it was too early to tell.
“The department is closely monitoring the potential impacts of the pandemic on death by suicide within the military population,” she said. “Caution should be used when examining changes in suicide counts across time, as counts do not account for changes in population size or provide enough time for essential investigations to determine cause of death.”
Who is most at risk: Overall, enlisted men under the age of 30 are of greatest concern, as they accounted for about 61 percent of all suicides last year, Orvis said.
Personally owned firearms, not military issued weapons, were the primary cause of death, she said.
HOUSE ARMED SERVICES HEAD PREDICTS DEFENSE BUDGET FIGHT IF BIDEN WINS: The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee is predicting a fight among Democrats over the defense budget should the party’s presidential nominee, Joe Biden, win.
Asked about Republican campaign warnings that Democrats would slash the defense budget if they win, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) highlighted Biden’s opposition to major cuts, as well as his own.
But he also acknowledged progressive Democrats are pushing for big cuts.
“There will be a fight, no question,” Smith said Thursday at an event hosted by the Association of Defense Communities. “There will be those Democrats who want to substantially cut the defense budget. I don’t believe it is the majority of my party, and I know it is not the position of the Biden-Harris ticket.”
What each candidate has said: President Trump has repeatedly touted on the campaign trail major defense budget increases that have happened under his watch. He and his supporters have accused Democrats of wanting to “defund” the military in the same way some on the left have called for “defunding” the police.
“If you listen to our colleagues, we’ll get the locusts and the frogs and the floods, and when Democrats take over, the world as we know it will cease to exist,” Smith joked of Republican criticisms.
Biden “has stated unequivocally that he does not envision cuts in the defense budget,” Smith added.
Biden told military newspaper Stars and Stripes last month he does not foresee making major defense cuts if he wins. If anything, he added, the defense budget could increase in certain areas, such as cyber capabilities and unmanned aircraft.
Progressive Dems want cuts: Defense budget analysts have predicted relatively flat budgets regardless of who wins the White House given outside pressure such as a ballooning national debt.
But progressives Democrats are pushing for major cuts, arguing that the coronavirus pandemic has shown the United States’ misplaced priorities on defense spending.
During consideration of the annual defense policy bill, progressives pushed an amendment that would have cut 10 percent off the $740 billion defense budget for fiscal year 2021. The amendment was defeated by bipartisan majorities in both chambers.
But not too much, Smith says: “There are a lot of forces within my party that want to see significant cuts in the defense budget. The number that is usually trotted out is 20 percent,” Smith said at Thursday’s event. “I don’t disagree with some of my more progressive friends that we cannot excessively rely on the military as we engage in the world. But I do disagree that we can cut the budget by that much.”
Smith has in the past argued the Pentagon could live with less money. But he argued Thursday a 20 percent cut is too large, saying there are “clear national security needs” that don’t support a reduction of that size.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
Former national security adviser retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster will speak at a Brookings Institution webinar on “Disinformed Democracy: The Past, Present, and Future of Information Warfare,” at 9:15 a.m.
The National Defense Industrial Association will hold a virtual symposium on “Special Operations Forces and Great Power Competition,” with Acting Assistant Defense Secretary for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict Ezra Cohen; Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.); Air Force Command Sgt. Gregory Smith, senior enlisted leader at the U.S. Special Operations Command; and Assistant Defense Secretary for Acquisition Kevin Fahey; among other defense officials, beginning at 10 a.m.
— The Hill: Rockets land near Iraqi base housing US troops: Report
— The Hill: Retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal endorses Biden
— The Hill: Democrats gear up for clash with DHS over whistleblower case
— The Hill: McMaster: Trump ‘aiding and abetting Putin’s efforts’ at election interference
— The Hill: Democrat asks intelligence director if Trump’s personal debt is security problem
— The Washington Post: As Kim wooed Trump with ‘love letters,’ he kept building his nuclear capability, intelligence shows
— The New York Times: U.S. Repatriates Last of Islamic State Suspects Believed Captured in Syria
— Stars and Stripes: ‘We’re not taking a knee’: Training under pandemic conditions could better prepare soldiers for the big fight