Congress has agreed on a $740.5B defense bill; here's how it impacts pay, ACFT, Space Force and more
By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 4, 2020
WASHINGTON — House and Senate lawmakers reached a deal this week on the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, teeing up a $740.5 billion defense spending and policy bill for votes in both chambers while simultaneously setting up a potential collision course with the White House as President Donald Trump has made multiple veto threats.
“Just as Congress has done for the last 59 years in a row, we have reached a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021,” Sens. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said Thursday in a joint statement.
The compromise bill is moving forward despite veto threats from Trump, who is demanding the defense bill terminate unrelated legal protections for social media companies over content for third parties and users. Both chambers of Congress passed their original bills during the summer with veto-proof majorities.
More so, the House Armed Services Committee’s ranking Republican said the bill shouldn’t include extraneous issues.
“The purpose of the bill has always been to support our troops and to protect American national security. Disagreements on all other issues have been put aside. This year should be no different,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who is retiring.
Here are some key issues addressed in the 2021 NDAA:
Confederate names to be scrubbed from bases
The bill includes a provision authored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren that directs the Pentagon to remove the names of Confederate generals from Army bases in three years. Trump previously threatened to veto the NDAA over any efforts to rename military bases.
Halting Trump’s hopes of a drawdown from Germany
The NDAA also seeks to squash Trump’s plan to move some 12,000 troops out of Germany. The plan calls for some to move elsewhere in Europe and others to the United States. The bill halts the Pentagon from cutting troop numbers below 34,5000 in Germany until 120 days after it sends an analysis to Congress on the impacts of a reduction.
Staying in Afghanistan
The NDAA seeks not to fund a reduction of troops in Afghanistan until the Pentagon assesses the impacts a drawdown would have on expanding terrorist safe havens and counterterrorism efforts. More than 2,300 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan and the war is 19 years old with no clear objectives or outlines for an end state.
More pay for troops
Servicemembers will see a 3% pay raise, and increases to hazard duty pay from $250 a month to $275. The bill also adds pay incentives to recruit and retain pilots, submariners, health care professionals, and some of critical job fields.
No Space Force Reserve or National Guard...yet
The NDAA does not created a Space Force Reserve component, but directs the Pentagon to provide Congress with recommendations and a plan to integrate reserve elements.
Some military leaders, including top commanders with the National Guard, want a Space Force Reserve and National Guard element. All branches have a Reserve force. The National Guard’s current space operations force is small but growing, with some 1,100 Air National Guard troops in space operations and another 300 or so Army National Guard members. It has units that conduct space missions in Colorado, California, Florida, Alaska, New York, Ohio and Arkansas, and is in the process of establishing such units in Hawaii and Guam.
ACFT on an indefinite hold
The defense bill halts the implementation of the Army Combat Fitness Test until a study is complete to assess the test’s impact on recruitment and retention. The study, which has to be conducted by an entity independent of the Pentagon, also has to investigate whether troops in different environments where outdoor activity is hindered are at a disadvantage.
The test has already been on hold. Army leaders have said units can conduct the test now, but will not count on a soldier’s record until 2022. This is to give troops more time to train for the test and as a reaction to the pandemic, which has restricted gym access across the country.
The ACFT replaces the decades-old fitness test with more events aimed to gauge a soldier’s physical fitness for combat. This includes CrossFit-style exercise events, hand release pushups, and leg tucks. The test retains the timed two-mile run.
The test was created after ground combat jobs such as infantry opened to women. Previously, the old fitness test had standards based on age and gender. The new test is age and gender neutral, having standards based on the soldier’s job.
Some have argued the test, specifically, the leg tuck event, put women at a dramatic disadvantage. Concerns have also been raised that troops in the Reserve and National Guard might not have easy access to all the equipment needed to adequately train for the test.
Preparing for a future pandemic
The Defense Department will be required to maintain a 30-day supply of personal protective equipment sufficient for all active-duty and Reserve component service members. It also directs the Pentagon to have the ability to facilitate rapid research and develop vaccines in the case of a future pandemic, and develop a general reaction plan.
Guardsmen and reservist’s retirements shouldn’t be impacted by coronavirus
The Pentagon also has to assure retirement eligibility is not cut for National Guard members and reservists because is drill weekends and annual training was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Space Force does not have to use Navy ranks
The House version of the NDAA directed the Space Force use Navy ranks. Yet the Senate bill contained no such provision. The compromise bill cut the House language and directs the Air Force to make a recommended rank structure for officers and enlisted personnel at least 15 days prior to implementation.
New funds to counter Chinese influence
The NDAA includes $2.2 billion for the Pentagon to begin a Pacific Deterrence Initiative in an effort to check growing Chinese military power in the Indo-Pacific region. The new program is modeled after the European Deterrence Initiative that the Defense Department launched in response to Russian aggression in 2014, including its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
The program will provide funding to jumpstart the initiative this fiscal year. Lawmakers have said they envision an increase in U.S. troops in the region, more training with allies in the Western Pacific and new stockpiles of weapons as part of the effort.