Dec. 10 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. House and Senate negotiators settled on a $552.1 billion defense authorization bill for fiscal 2014 that would revamp how the U.S. military handles sexual assault cases and approve the Pentagon’s request for F-35 fighters.
Under the compromise unveiled yesterday, commanders would be stripped of their ability to dismiss a finding by a court martial and would be barred from reducing guilty findings. Retaliation against personnel reporting sexual assaults would become a military crime under the measure.
“These are extremely important provisions” aimed at ending the “excessive numbers of sexual assault that still occur,” Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters. He said lawmakers were looking to move the bill through the House this week and get it passed by the Senate before year’s end.
Pressure has been growing in Congress to change the way the military investigates and prosecutes sexual assaults after a Pentagon survey suggested a surge in such crimes. President Barack Obama has said the issue of sexual assault is undermining trust and readiness among members of the armed forces.
The measure doesn’t include a proposal backed by lawmakers including New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that would have removed sexual assault and other major crimes from the chain of command and turn them over to independent military prosecutors.
Levin yesterday said there “was objection” to including the proposal from Gillibrand, and another from Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, in the compromise measure.
A Defense Department survey of active-duty troops released in May estimated there were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact last year, compared with 2,949 victims identified in criminal reports.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon said yesterday that sexual-assault in the military was one of the “biggest issues” that lawmakers sought to address.
“We held numerous hearings and really worked hard on this issue and came up with some, some very good changes” McKeon, a California Republican, told reporters.
To better protect victims’ rights, Levin said the measure would modify the military’s Article 32 process to make it more like a civilian grand jury’s proceedings, with a focus on whether there’s enough evidence for prosecution. The change to Article 32 isn’t limited to sexual assault cases, he said.
The bill would also eliminate the five-year statute of limitations on rape and sexual assault, and require Pentagon to create a special counsel for sex-assault victims.
Under the bill unveiled yesterday, the Pentagon would be allowed to buy the 29 F-35 jets it had requested. The fighter, made by Lockheed Martin Corp., is the military’s costliest weapons program.
The Pentagon’s current five-year plan calls for increasing F-35 production to 42 jets in fiscal 2015, which begins Oct. 1, 2014, from 29 this year and in fiscal 2013. The rate would increase to 62 in 2016, 76 in 2017 and 100 in 2018, according to internal Pentagon budget documents. The new plan will be released next year with the Pentagon’s fiscal 2015 budget plan.
The Pentagon’s projected price tag of $391.2 billion for a fleet of 2,443 aircraft is a 68 percent increase from the projection in 2001, as measured in current dollars. The number of aircraft also is 409 fewer than called for in the original program.
The compromise measure also would give Obama flexibility to transfer detainees from the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to third countries. In April, the president renewed his first-term pledge to close the prison that was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hold accused and suspected terrorists.
Guantanamo detainees could be moved to Yemen, though the Yemeni government would have to show that it’s capable of prosecuting and rehabilitating them, according to a summary provided by the office of Representative Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services committee.
The bill includes a House-passed provision that would bar detainees from being brought to the U.S. mainland, Levin said.
If congressional leaders can move the legislation through the House this week and the Senate next week, it would keep a streak alive; defense authorizations have been passed for 51 straight years.
The compromise bill’s $552.1 billion figure includes base discretionary and mandatory funding for the Pentagon and some Energy Department programs; a separate $80.7 billion for overseas contingency operations also would be authorized.
The measure’s authorizations include $90 million to continue upgrades of the M1A2 tank that General Dynamics Corp. performs in Ohio.
It also would prevent the retirement of Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Global Hawk Block 30 drone in 2014 and authorize funding for the four Littoral Combat Ships requested by the Navy -- two from a group led by Lockheed Martin and two from a team led by Austal Ltd.
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