Lawmakers say new defense bill helps protect SD
By Henry C. Jackson
WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawmakers say a comprehensive, nearly $633 billion defense bill that cleared the Senate on Thursday will protect South Dakota priorities, including the long-term future of Ellsworth Air Force Base.
The Senate approved the defense policy bill late Thursday, a week after the House passed the same measure. It now goes to President Barack Obama.
The bill deals with several policy issues that South Dakota's congressional members have worked on, including covering the costs of combat pay for members of the military, funding for equipment and efforts to stop the epidemic of military sexual assaults.
All of South Dakota's delegation — Sens. John Thune, a Republican, and Tim Johnson, a Democrat, as well as GOP Rep. Kristi Noem — supported the sweeping legislation.
Thune said the bill will have a broad impact on South Dakota because it has a large military and retired military population.
"I've always described South Dakota as punching above its weight for military service," Thune said. "For a small state, we have a pretty big impact on military readiness."
The most important element of the bill for South Dakota, he said, was including language that expresses Congress' support for building long-range bomber aircraft in the future. He said that is critical because it's a part of Ellsworth's core mission.
"There are so many different weapons systems and priorities that people have when it comes to a defense bill," Thune said. "The capability for a long-range strike is something we think will be critical with the threats that are over the horizon."
The bill doesn't authorize funding for new bombers, but Thune said an expression of congressional support will send an important message.
Johnson has said he supports the bill for much the same reasons. Johnson said the long-range bomber program is crucial for South Dakota and the country's strategic defense.
For Noem, the defense bill contains a personal legislative victory: She worked on language included in the final bill that addresses military sexual assaults, one of the most important pieces of the legislation.
Noem drafted provisions that would strengthen investigations when they deal with sexual offenses, require a review of training on preventing sexual assaults and require defense officials to develop and define qualifications for people who are working internally on preventing sexual assault.
They are included in the final bill.
Noem said she was troubled by the military's inability to deal with sexual assaults, and said she hoped the new defense bill would take important steps toward slowing the epidemic.
"The women and men who voluntarily serve in our Armed Forces understand that they may be called to serve in dangerous places, but they should never face the threat of harm from their fellow service members," Noem said. "The sexual assault provisions included in the National Defense Authorization Act are not the silver bullet, but they do move us a few steps closer to winning the war against sexual assault in the military."