Panels back larger Army, more funds for special operations

Two House Armed Services subcommittees worked quickly this morning to approve portions of the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill, giving unanimous approval to a nearly $9 billion allocation for the U.S. Special Operations Command, a higher military pay raise than sought by President Obama and 30,000 additional soldiers that Army leaders have said they do not want.

Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Davis, D-Calif., said her panel's provisions were a continuation of its efforts to help the service members and their families who are "bearing the brunt of multiple deployments, with no foreseeable end in sight" after eight years of conflict.

Her subcommittee mark would authorize a military pay raise of 3.4 percent, continuing Congress' pattern of adding 0.5 percent to the president's proposal. Davis noted this would be the 11th consecutive year Congress will give larger raises to the troops to help close the "gap" between military pay and comparable private-sector compensation.

Congress customarily gave the civilian federal workforce the same pay raise as the military until the current trend began, spurred by lawmakers who believe they must make up for meager military pay increases in the 1990s.

The subcommittee authorized the Army to add 30,000 soldiers to its authorized ceiling of 547,400, which it just reached after growing by more than 40,000.

Davis said that increase was necessary because the high number of soldiers who cannot deploy due to war wounds or other reasons is having "an adverse impact" on the Army's push to increase the time its personnel are home between combat deployments.

When Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., offered to add 30,000 soldiers during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in May, Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, said he did not need or want that now. Adding those troops would cost $1 billion a year, Casey said.

During its markup, the Armed Services Terrorism Subcommittee approved $9 billion for SOCOM, a significant portion of the panel's portfolio that includes $308.4 million in unfunded priorities not included in the budget request for special operations forces.

"Recognizing the leading role that our special operations forces play in the fight against extremists and like-minded groups around the world, the subcommittee's mark seeks to enhance manpower management and improve overall readiness of special operations forces," Terrorism Subcommittee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in prepared remarks.

Smith said his panel's portion of the defense bill, which was approved by voice vote, prioritizes irregular warfare, including counterinsurgency, stability operations and strategic communications aimed at winning "hearts and minds."

Accordingly, the subcommittee changed the Obama administration's budget plan by agreeing to authorize $30 million -- $10 million more than requested -- to support the NATO Special Operations Coordination Center in Belgium.

"These coalition forces play a very important role in Afghanistan, complementing and enhancing the counterinsurgency efforts of U.S. forces, and it is our responsibility to continue to help NATO become more engaged and effective," Terrorism Subcommittee ranking member Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in his opening statement.

The full Armed Services Committee will mark up the authorization bill on Tuesday.

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