Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: House Armed Services starts defense bill markups | Two Navy sailors die of COVID-19 | Pentagon reimposes mask mandate in some places

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Happy Wednesday 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 House Armed Services Committee began work on its annual defense policy bill in earnest Wednesday, as subcommittees started considering their portions of the bill.

The committee’s cyber, strategic forces, seapower and personnel subcommittees all advanced their portions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with voice votes.

As is typical for Armed Services subcommittees, there was little to no drama Wednesday. The most controversial items are punted until the full committee’s consideration of the bill, which isn’t happening until Sept. 1.

The remaining subpanels — tactical air and land forces, readiness, and intelligence and special operations — also released their portions of the bill Wednesday, with their markups scheduled for Thursday.

Here’s the full collection of subcommittee drafts:

Cyber, innovative technologies and information systems

Strategic forces

Seapower and projection forces

Military personnel

Tactical air and land forces


Intelligence and special operations

F-35 issues: One item of the note in the drafts released Wednesday was in the tactical air and land force portion.

Specifically, the bill would make the Pentagon, in consultation with NASA, look into breathing issues faced by F-35 pilots.

A committee aide speaking to reporters on background said the provision was sparked by a NASA study released earlier this year that “had some pretty concerning findings” on the issue.

Researchers found that the F-35’s breathing system delivered “an unpredictable amount of flow at the beginning, middle and end of each breath and that it changed from breath-to-breath,” the study said.

“Such rapid changes in the breath-to-breath supply forces the pilot to continually compensate by adjusting breathing rate, volume, and exhalation/inhalation force,” the study added.

When House Armed Services Committee staffers reached out to the Pentagon’s F-35 office to get their perspective on the study, “they kind of discounted it” because it was based on limited data and wasn’t “formally sanctioned” by the department, the aide said.

“We want to make sure that instead of the pilot having to adapt to the jet, the jet needs to make sure that it complies with the military specifications required for pilot breathing systems,” the aide said. “The pilot shouldn’t have to think about breathing in the airplane. It should just come naturally so that they can focus on the tactical employment.”

Funding fight ahead: While, as mentioned, the most heated debates will wait for the full committee, Wednesday’s seapower markup previewed the funding fight to come.

At the markup, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, continued to push for the defense budget to grow by 3 to 5 percent over inflation, as Republicans have been doing.

But centrist Democrat Rep. Elaine Luria (Va.), who has previously criticized the Biden administration’s $715 billion Pentagon budget request as inadequate, also spoke out Wednesday. In particular, she criticized proposed ship retirements and said she is “hoping that through the full committee markup and as we move forward with the NDAA process, that we can actually get back on the right track to continue to grow our Navy in accordance with the rising threats that we have from our near-peer competitors in China and Russia.”

Recall that on the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, both Republicans and Democrats voted to increase Biden’s budget by $25 billion.


Two Navy sailors died from COVID-19 complications in the past week, deaths that were revealed as the Pentagon on Wednesday moved to reimpose mask mandates at some of its installations.

Capt. Corby Ropp, 48, of Swansboro, N.C., died July 23 at Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C., and Navy Reserve Master-at-Arms 1st Class Allen Hillman, 47, of Boise, Idaho, died July 26, according to the Navy.

Ropp was the head of ophthalmology and refractive surgery at the Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command at Camp Lejeune, N.C., while Hillman was assigned to the Navy Reserve Volunteer Training Unit in Boise.

It is not known if either were vaccinated against the virus.

Masks are back: Hillman and Ropp’s deaths come as coronavirus infections and hospitalizations are surging in some parts of the country due to the highly contagious delta variant of the virus, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week recommending that even vaccinated people wear masks in crowded indoor settings in areas where transmission is high.

The increased cases also caused the White House on Tuesday evening to instruct federal agencies in Washington, D.C., and other areas where there is a high degree of community transmission of COVID-19 to require that employees, contractors and visitors wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status.

Following that, the Defense Department released a memo to its personnel, ordering a return to masks “in areas of substantial or high transmissions.”

The announcement applies to all service members, federal personnel, contractors and visitors when indoors at properties owned by the department.

By the numbers: The deaths announced Wednesday bring the total number of Navy sailors killed by COVID-19 to 10. Across the military, 28 service members have died of the virus, according to the latest Pentagon numbers.

The Air Force is currently the most vaccinated service, with 81 percent of its force having received both doses of the shot. The Navy comes in second with nearly 80 percent vaccinated, the Army is at 71 percent, while the Marines have the worst numbers at only 57 percent.


After being confirmed by the Senate on Monday evening, Frank Kendall was officially sworn in as Air Force secretary Wednesday morning.

His official Twitter account put out photos of his arrival, alongside a statement from him saying he is “both honored and humbled to serve as the incoming Secretary of the Air Force.”

“With Under Secretary [Gina Ortiz] Jones, and alongside [Air Force chief of staff] Gen. C.Q. Brown and [Chief of Space Operations] Gen. [John] Raymond, I will be totally focused on ensuring that our Air and Space Forces can fulfill their missions to defend the nation against our most challenging threats, today and into the future,” Kendall added. “I will do everything I can to strengthen and support the great teams of American airmen and guardians who have dedicated themselves to protecting our country.”


House Armed Services Committee subpanels will mark up their portions of the National Defense Authorization Act:

— Tactical air and land forces at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/3yapK1G

— Readiness at noon https://bit.ly/2WxXkAH

— Intelligence and special operations at 2 p.m. https://bit.ly/3rDhRiO

The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on Lebanon with testimony from outside experts at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/2VfTWtI


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Tags Elaine Luria Rob Wittman

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