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Defense bill would bolster Georgia’s military bases

An annual defense policy bill that the House passed Friday includes hundreds of millions of dollars for operations at Georgia’s military installations and fends off a new round of base closures.

The legislation, which would greenlight about $696 billion in military spending, won the support of all 10 of the chamber’s Georgia Republicans, as well as the state’s two more centrist Democrats. But U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson of Lithonia and John Lewis of Atlanta voted with 71 other mostly liberal Democrats to reject the plan. Neither responded to a request for comment.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged to take it up during the chamber’s recently announced August session.

Georgia proponents highlighted the money that would flow to the state and its military communities under the bill, as well as to how it would help bolster the country’s defense readiness.

“Simply put, an innovative, flexible and agile military force is vital to keeping America safe, our allies assured and our enemies deterred,” said U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe. “With the passage of the (measure), we’ve taken a step in the right direction.”

The legislation itself does not allocate federal money. It greenlights funding that must later be approved in government spending bills later this year.

Since the measure busts through 6-year-old budget caps by more than $70 million, lawmakers must eventually cut a deal on spending levels in order to avoid a new round of budget sequestration. Democrats insist that any increase to military funding should be accompanied by an equal increase to federal nondefense programs, which include everything from transportation to housing programs and scientific research.

Georgia benefits 

The legislation includes quite a few goodies for Georgia’s eight major bases and more than 118,000 active-duty, reserve and civilian personnel.

More broadly, it would provide a 2.4 percent pay raise for service members, an increase that would likely trickle down into local economies. The measure would also provide the Army with money to add 17,000 more soldiers, a provision that would have a major impact on Fort Benning in Columbus, one of the Army’s four basic combat training sites.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers fought off an attempt to even consider a new round of military base closures, a move that undoubtedly has Georgia installations and their boosters breathing a sigh of relief.

Presidents of both parties and the Defense Department have said for years that an overall consolidation is necessary, adding that the Pentagon has as much as 20 percent excess overhead. Such proposals are incredibly unpopular with Congress and military communities.

Georgia saw four of its military installations shuttered in the mid-2000s. Local military communities have worked to beef up the missions housed at their bases in recent years in order to make them look less vulnerable to future budget-cutters.

Here is how some of Georgia’s other defense interests fared:

  • A-10C Warthog: $103 million for wing upgrades.

Why it matters: The close-air support aircraft is flown out of Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, and the new money would help extend the planes’ lifetimes. There has long been talk of retiring the 1970s-era aircraft with the long-delayed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but supporters have called the A-10s ideal for fighting the Islamic State.

  • Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS): $417 million for recapitalization work and an additional $37 million for the current fleet.

Why it matters: The Air Force is in the process of replacing the aging aircraft fleet, which is flown out of Robins Air Force Base in Middle Georgia. The 16 current planes perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance work in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The bill would increase funding — nearly four times above last year’s level — for efforts to replace the fleet by the late 2020s. Separately, the measure sets aside funding for maintaining and upgrading the current batch of planes until they’re ultimately replaced.

  • Cybersecurity: $8 billion overall and $79.5 million specifically for Fort Gordon.

Why it matters: The $8 billion represents a substantial increase in cybersecurity funding in the aftermath of Russia’s involvement in last year’s presidential election. A portion of that money is expected to make its way to Fort Gordon in Augusta, the new headquarters of the U.S. Army’s Cyber Command and home to many functions of the National Security Agency. The legislation would also set aside nearly $80 million specifically for Fort Gordon, including for new cyber instructional facilities. Groundbreaking began last month.

  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and C-130J Super Hercules: Permission to acquire 87 more F-35s and 20 more C-130Js.

Why it matters: Both Lockheed Martin planes are assembled in part in Marietta at a facility adjacent to Dobbins Air Reserve Base. New business doesn’t hurt the region.

The bill also includes nearly $11 million for a new air traffic control tower for Fort Benning, more than $43 million to build a warehouse for combat vehicles at a Marine Corps logistics base in Albany and $32 million for a new mission complex for the Air Force Reserve Command at Robins, according to a fact sheet from the office of U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger.

Representatives also approved new money for tanks and infantry fighting vehicles at Benning. They additionally OK’d the creation of a Reserve Officer Training Corps program for cybersecurity at the University of North Georgia and five other military colleges in order to create new pipelines for people to work in the cybersecurity field.

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