Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Lawmakers release compromise defense bill in defiance of Trump veto threat | Senate voting next week on blocking UAE arms sale | Report faults lack of training, ‘chronic fatigue’ in military plane crashes

Anna Moneymaker

Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Rebecca Kheel, 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 compromise National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is officially out.

As we already knew, the compromise includes a requirement that the Pentagon rename Confederate-named military bases in three years and excludes a repeal of a tech liability shield — both things that have elicited veto threat from President Trump.

On Thursday before the bill was officially released, Trump doubled down on his demand, signaling the veto showdown isn’t over.

“Looks like certain Republican Senators are getting cold feet with respect to the termination of Big Tech’s Section 230, a National Security and Election Integrity MUST,” he tweeted. “For years, all talk, no action. Termination must be put in Defense Bill!!!”

Several other items of note made it into the bill — and some didn’t. Here’s a quick rundown:

Germany drawdown: Language aimed at constraining Trump’s ability to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Germany made it in.

“There is language that prevents reduction in the number of U.S. forces stationed in Germany below 34,500 until 120 days after the secretary of Defense submits an assessment and planning regarding the implications for allies, costs, military families, deterrence and other key issues,” a House aide told The Hill before the bill’s release.

The compromise bill also “expresses the sense of Congress emphasizing the value of U.S. forces in Germany and the U.S-German alliance,” the aide added.

Afghanistan drawdown: The bill also includes language aimed at preventing a withdrawal from Afghanistan amid Trump’s order to cut U.S. forces there to 2,500 by mid-January.

The NDAA would block funding to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan until the Pentagon, State Department and director of national intelligence assess how a drawdown would affect threats to the United States, among other criteria.

The assessment would be required before troops can drop below the number there when the bill becomes law and again before troops can drop below 2,000.

“The conferees reaffirm that it is in the national security interests of the United States to deny terrorists safe haven in Afghanistan, protect the United States homeland, uphold the United States partnership with the Government of Afghanistan, and protect the hard-fought gains for the rights of women, girls, and other vulnerable populations in Afghanistan,” said the compromise, known as a conference report.

Nukes: Competing proposals on the prospect of the United States resuming nuclear testing were jettisoned from the bill.

The version of the NDAA the Senate passed in July included language sponsored by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to make at least $10 million available to “carry out projects related to reducing the time required to execute a nuclear test if necessary.”

The NDAA passed by the House that month, on the other hand, included an amendment sponsored by several Democrats that would have prohibited funding from being used “to conduct or make preparations for any explosive nuclear weapons test that produces any yield.”

“The conference agreement does not include either provision,” the conference report said.

Other miscellany: The Senate’s language placing narrow restrictions on the Pentagon program that transfers military-grade equipment sent to local police departments is in. The bill would limit the transfer of bayonets, grenades, weaponized tracked combat vehicles and weaponized drones, as well as require law enforcement to be trained in deescalation and citizens’ constitutional rights.

Meanwhile, the House’s language to curtail a president’s powers under the Insurrection Act is out, as is the Senate’s language blocking funding from being used to deploy U.S. troops against peaceful protesters.

The language requiring the Space Force to use Navy ranks, as advocated for by likes of William Shatner, is also out.

House language requiring sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of a Russian missile defense system is in.

Language that would create a national cyber director at the White House is also in, as is funding to keep military newspaper Stars and Stripes operating.

Read the full conference report here.

SENATE TO VOTE NEXT WEEK ON BLOCKING UAE ARMS SALE: The Senate will vote next week on whether to block Trump’s arms sale to the United Arab Emirates, setting up a foreign policy showdown in the final days of the administration.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said he expects to bring up the votes next week, which he is able to do without support from GOP leadership because of the rules governing arms sale resolutions. 

“It’s ready, it has privilege on the floor. We are gathering support for it and I would think sometime next week,” Menendez said, asked about timing.

Menendez and Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) introduced four resolutions of disapproval to block the $23 billion sale to the UAE of F-35 fighter jets, armed drones, missiles and bombs. 

Senate math: Resolutions of disapproval on arms sales only need a simple majority to pass the Senate, unlike most legislation.

If every Democrat backs the resolutions, Democrats would need three GOP senators to get to 51 votes. Since Paul is a co-sponsor that means they would only need an additional two GOP senators.

It’s unclear if every Democrat will support the resolution. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, said Thursday that he was undecided. 

“I haven’t decided yet. I’ve got some conversations about it over the weekend and into next week,” Kaine said, describing himself as having unanswered questions.

Murphy, however, predicted that they would get to 51 votes, though he included the caveat that more senators need to get briefings on the arms sale. The administration has been providing closed-door briefings to people this week as it has tried to squash the resolutions.

COMMITTEE LEADERS OFFICIAL: Democrats and Republicans in the House officially chose who will lead committees in the next Congress on Thursday after each party’s steering committee made their recommendations earlier in the week.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) was officially chosen as the House Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, replacing retiring Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).

“It’s an honor to have just been selected by my colleagues to lead the Republicans as Ranking Member of @HASCRepublicans,” Rogers tweeted Thursday. “I will work to modernize our military, combat our rising adversaries, and dominate the battlefields of this century.”

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) will officially be the first African American chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee after winning the caucus-wide vote

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) was chosen to be the next House Appropriations chair, filling the vacancy left by retiring Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and becoming the second woman to lead the panel.

AVIATION SAFETY REPORT PAINTS GRIM PICTURE: More than 6,000 military aviation accidents have killed 224 pilots or aircrew, destroyed 186 aircraft and cost $11.66 billion since 2013, according to a congressionally commissioned report released Thursday.

After speaking with thousands of military pilots, aircrew and ground crew and reviewing accident data from 2013 to 2018, the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety “came away deeply troubled by the chronic fatigue we saw among these brave servicemembers,” a summary of the report states.

The mishaps, which were non-combat related and occurred during training or routine operations, were largely blamed on the breakneck operations tempo of the military, which “is leading to unsafe practices and driving experienced aviators and maintainers out of the force.”

The commissioners found that training cutbacks was one major factor that led to the crashes and also threatened to affect future pilots. They said they learned of numerous students who completed a rushed initial training program, were then pushed through follow-on training by less-experienced instructors and eventually became instructors and leaders themselves.

A lack of consistent Defense Department funding also has a hand in the accidents and “is especially pernicious to military aviation safety.”

Though the Pentagon received more than $718 billion in fiscal year 2020, a $32 billion increase over the previous year, Congress routinely has not been able to pass a budget by the start of the new fiscal year. Instead, lawmakers pass continuing resolutions (CRs) to bridge the gap, which keeps spending at the previous years’ levels until the final bill is worked out.

What do the troops think?: Service members, when asked what they think will cause the next mishap, repeatedly pointed to insufficient flight hours, shrinking skill levels, inadequate and rushed training programs, distracting and excessive administrative duties, spotty funding, risky maintenance practices and a relentless work schedule.

Aviators told the commission that never-ending demands for military aircraft deny them the time needed for training to keep their war-fighting skills current.

“I can’t train to fight Russia and China. I need relief from hauling crap around the [area of responsibility] so that I can actually train,” said one Air Force commander.

Furthermore, aviators have increasingly been asked to do more with fewer hands on deck, leading to chronic fatigue and burnout.

“My kids don’t know who I am” due to deployments, exercises, and constant long days, one Marine Corps aviator said. “They don’t know when I am going to be home. That stuff leads to the burnout and distraction while flying.”


Former CIA Director John Brennan will discuss top national security priorities for the incoming Biden administration at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies at 9 a.m. https://bit.ly/3qqqPyP

Defense Security Cooperation Agency director Heidi Grant and assistant Secretary of state for political-military affairs R. Clarke Cooper will brief the media on fiscal 2020 arms transfer figures at 1 p.m. Livestream at https://bit.ly/3gb8eSO.


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Tags Bob Menendez Chris Murphy Donald Trump Gregory Meeks John Brennan Mac Thornberry Mike Rogers Nita Lowey Rand Paul Rosa DeLauro Tim Kaine Tom Cotton
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