Saying that it's a whole new ball game on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) would be an understatement -- it's more like a whole new sport. Several of HASC's key Democratic lawmakers lost their seats last night, including Chairman Ike Skelton from Missouri and moderate Gene Taylor from Mississippi. That leaves Democrats rudderless on the influential committee, with Republicans standing by to launch an aggressive new defense agenda.
Now that HASC's roster is nearly finalized, the big question turns to legislative priorities. The inevitable hearings on Don't Ask, Don't Tell will suck in plenty of national attention once the Pentagon releases its report next month, as will hearings on the potential closure of the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay.
But the real debate will be about hardware, as several leading GOP lawmakers seek to modernize aging weapon systems and send badly needed upgrades to the front lines. In a press release this morning, ranking Republican committee member Buck McKeon called current defense spending levels insufficient and promised to invest in "capabilities and force structure needed to protect the United State's from tomorrow's threats." Referencing future threats is generally interpreted as code for emerging powers such as Russia and China, two nations in the middle of an aggressive modernization push of their own. Deterring peer competitors mandates that the U.S. stays comfortably in the lead in terms of military technology and numerical strength, so this could portend a sizable shift of defense dollars into all things painted green.
It's safe to say that the big winners last night (aside from the GOP) were the Navy and Air Force. Requests to push the Navy's end-strength up to 313 ships will likely be viewed favorably by new Republican members, along with concerns about an emerging "fighter gap" as the F-22's production line winds down and the F-35's deployment date experiences further delays. The Air Force could see significant resources vectored toward upgrading its nuclear infrastructure, the condition of which was called into question after a severe breakdown in command and control systems last week. (Senator Barrasso from Wyoming has directly linked nuke modernization to the passage of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.) And missile defense programs, which have atrophied over the past two years, will be the beneficiaries of increased resourcing.
"More funds will go to missile defense," says a House GOP aide. "Not only deploying missile defense, but holding the Administration accountable to the system that they developed. That includes capabilities needed to counter Chinese plans for anti-access and area deniability."
So in the aftermath of an election largely driven by deficit worries, where will the money come from? The most probable source of modernization funding is already present in the current defense budget. GOP members largely support overall efforts on the part of Secretary Gates to save $100 billion in Pentagon efficiencies, but view those savings as a way to reinvest in badly needed weapon system upgrades. Paul Ryan, widely believed to be the next Budget Committee chairman, has expressed support for this plan.
Of course, this is worth a caveat: This is all speculation until new committee members and leadership are identified.