SASC gavel set to change hands

With Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) as the new chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrats will set the tone on defense policy and budgets.

U.S. Senator Jack Reed, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, from Rhode Island, speaks with senior leadership from Army Futures Command (AFC), and Austin, Texas area entrepreneurs at Army Applications Laboratory. Senator Reed toured facilities and met with leadership to learn about the AFC mission. (U.S. Army photo by Patrick Enright)

Sen. Jack Reed, shown here on a 2019 visit to Army Futures Command in Austin, Texas, is set to take the gavel of the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Photo credit: Patrick Enright/U.S. Army)

The Democrats are poised to lead defense policy from both chambers of Congress when Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island takes over as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee when a power-sharing agreement in the 50-50 Senate is finalized.

Reed will inherit the gavel of Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), and will be the first Democrat to run the committee since 2015.

The soft-spoken senator and former Army veteran is known for being tough when it counts, particularly on personnel, leadership and technology issues. Reed recently warned of the risks to U.S. networks on the Senate floor in December as he urged colleagues to override Trump's veto of the 2021 defense policy bill.

"Every day we are learning more about the Russian penetration," he said. "I suspect it's very serious," adding that the bill's cybersecurity measures recommended by a congressional commission are "just the first step…but if we don't take this first step we fall behind."

Reed also raised concern about potential White House interference during the Defense Department's controversial JEDI cloud buy. In an Aug. 5 letter to then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the senator wrote with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) that his plan to review the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure program was driven by politics and could compromise the federal procurement process.

"The importance of political noninterference is especially important in the context of Department of Defense procurements, where procurement decisions must focus on cost, quality, performance and other considerations directly related to promoting our national security in an increasingly complex global environment," the senators wrote.

Reed will be responsible for leading confirmation hearings for President Joe Biden's Defense Department appointees. While the committee already held a hearing for Gen. Lloyd Austin (Ret.) on Jan. 19 and reported the pick favorably to the full Senate on Jan. 21, there are dozens of positions in Pentagon leadership and across the armed services that need confirmation. Reed declared his support for a waiver for Austin's service, because the nominee retired from active military service just four years ago. Former President Donald Trump's first secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, required a waiver in 2017 and at the time Reed said he would not support future exemptions.

DOD's increasing need for technological development and talent will likely have to contend with tighter budgets with Democrats controlling the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Reed will face opposition from Republican senators who favor at least 3% growth over DOD's current $741 billion funding level.

"The fiscal year 2022 budget will be the first that is unconstrained by the Budget Control Act. And some view this as an opportunity to redirect the overall defense budget," Reed said in opening remarks during Austin's nomination hearing. "This year will mark an inflection point in how the department prioritizes resources it needs to accomplish its missions."

Reed added: "The department must focus its efforts on critical technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotechnology, and cybersecurity while also emphasizing rapid delivery of advanced new weapon systems on a timeline that keeps pace with technological change."

Reed also called on Biden's DOD to work with Congress "to find ways to retire legacy systems" without too much risk and to invest "in great people to manage the complexities of the Pentagon and its processes rather than an endless search for budget cuts and workforce reductions."