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Armed Services’ agenda has newly pressing topic: Race

Protests have forced into the NDAA debate heated conversations about racism and the dearth of minorities in the military’s upper echelons

California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, chairwoman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, wrote the NDAA’s provisions on extremism.
California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, chairwoman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, wrote the NDAA’s provisions on extremism. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Racial justice is not usually in the front of lawmakers’ minds as they write the annual defense authorization bill. But this year is not every year.

The recent protests sparked by police killings of African Americans have forced into the defense budget debate some heated conversations about racism in the military ranks and the dearth of minorities in the upper echelons.

House Armed Services Committee panels on Monday started considering their portions of the NDAA, the bill that sets policies for U.S. defense programs and authorizes spending on them — more than $730 billion in the coming fiscal year alone. The bill touches on everything from military pay and benefits to setting the terms for multibillion-dollar weapons buys. 

Amid the concerns about continuing racial inequities in the military, as in the broader society, the panel would mandate annual Pentagon reports on the demographics of new military officers.

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Further, the bill would require the military to track extremism, including racist incidents, in the ranks.

What’s more, when the full committee meets July 1 to finish marking up the bill, the debate will only heat up.

The full committee is expected to debate an amendment to expunge vestiges of the Confederacy from U.S. military assets and another that would make racist or anti-government violence, or threats to commit it, a new military crime. 

[Members eye expunging all traces of Confederacy in military]

“For too long, the military has refused to accept that it has a problem with extremists in the ranks,” said California Democrat Jackie Speier, the Military Personnel chairwoman and author of the provisions on extremism. 

Race relations in the ranks

If this NDAA is enacted, it would be the 60th in a row. The Senate Armed Services Committee has written its own version of the bill, and the Senate may debate it next month.

The NDAA’s consideration comes amid the backdrop of not only the widespread protests in U.S. cities but also several reports this month of active or former members of the military engaging in or threatening violence during those protests. 

An active-duty airman was charged with killing a California sheriff’s deputy during recent protests in Oakland. The suspect reportedly referenced during his arrest the anti-government “boogaloo” movement, which experts have said aims to overthrow the government and contains neo-Nazi elements intent on starting a race war.

Also this month, three Nevada men with varying military experience, and reported ties to the boogaloo movement, were arrested on terrorism-related charges after they allegedly aimed to spark violence during protests in Las Vegas.

The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel measure would require a report on the demographic makeup of new military officers, amid concerns that there are not enough Black or other minority officers in the upper ranks. In fact, of 41 four-star generals and admirals, only two are Black.

The subcommittee’s legislation also would require that the Pentagon add to one of its workplace surveys a question about what employees know about racist or other forms of violent extremism. A poll conducted earlier this year by Military Times found that one-third of military respondents had seen evidence of white supremacist or other racist ideologies in the ranks. 

In addition, the subcommittee would require a system for tracking and reporting to law enforcement violations of a Defense Department prohibition against supremacist, extremist and criminal gang activity. Right now, such violations are lumped in with other instances of disobeying orders instead of being categorized separately, aides said. 

Pandemics, sexual assault

The Military Personnel panel also would require the Defense secretary to protect the armed forces from infectious diseases and make certain the industrial base can provide the drugs, medical supplies and protective equipment that troops need in the face of disease outbreaks. And another of the House Armed Services panels, clearly worried about what the coronavirus revealed about U.S. military preparedness for responding to chemical and biological weapons attacks, has asked the Government Accountability Office to review the issue.

The personnel subcommittee was active on another pressing issue that is closely watched inside the military and beyond: sexual assault. The panel’s measure would, at Speier’s request, require the Defense secretary to write regulations that would provide limited immunity for alleged victims of sexual assault from minor collateral misconduct, absent an aggravating circumstance, if the misconduct occurred during the assault or was discovered while investigating the attack.

Troops and weapons

On other matters, the bill would approve the administration’s request for a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise for uniformed personnel. 

House Armed Services panels also showed members’ nervousness about some Pentagon hardware projects. 

One panel expressed concern that the military will have bought 79 new KC-46A midair refueling tanker planes by the coming fiscal year, and is poised to approve purchases of many more, even though they do not yet work. Members have demanded a briefing before the Pentagon decides whether to expand production.

Another of the House panels would likewise prevent the Pentagon from retiring older systems before the new ones have proven themselves capable. 

The bill would extend through fiscal 2025 Congress’ prohibition on the Air Force retiring any of its RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft until the Defense secretary certifies that a replacement is ready.

Andrew Clevenger contributed to this report.

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