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Senator Reed steps in as Senate Armed Services chairman

In his new role, Rhode Island Democrat will face issues ranging from the expanding Chinese military to extremism within the US ranks

Democratic US Senator Jack Reed at the US Capitol.STEFANI REYNOLDS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

PROVIDENCE — In many ways, US Senator Jack Reed now has his dream job: After 23 years on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the West Point graduate is finally chairman of the powerful panel.

But in that post, he will face some nightmarish realities, ranging from Russian provocation and a expanding Chinese military on the world stage to extremism within the ranks of the US military.

“It’s going to be very challenging period of time in which there are now significant strategic rivals,” Reed said. “Also, we as an institution have to demand more value in terms of what we are buying for equipment and other aspects of the military.”

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Reed is the first Rhode Islander to lead the Senate Armed Services Committee. The last two Rhode Islanders to chair full Senate committees wenre Republican John H. Chafee, who led the Environment and Public Works Committee from 1995 to 1999, and Democrat Claiborne Pell, who led the Foreign Relations Committee from 1987 to 1995.

Reed, a Democrat, said he plans on “following in the great tradition of thoughtful and bipartisan leadership” displayed by former Armed Services Committee chairmen Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, and Senator John McCain, a Republican. As the committee’s ranking Democrat for the past six years, he said he had a “good working relationship” with the former chairman, Republican Senator James Inhofe.

At age 71, Reed is the 23rd oldest senator but ranks 10th in seniority and also serves on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

In an interview, Reed talked about challenges that his committee faces both at home and abroad.

He spoke in favor renaming the military bases currently named for Confederate leaders, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, and Fort Benning in Georgia. “We are now a force that is diverse, and it is wrong to recognize individuals who fought against the United States and openly affirmed racial superiority,” he said.

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Reed recently named retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the first Black graduate of West Point to head the Army Corps of Engineers, to serve on the commission that’s renaming the bases.

He said the bases will be named for people who have, at minimum, received the Silver Star, the third-highest military combat decoration awarded to a member of the US Armed Forces.

“What we will find is that the new candidates and new names are those of American fighting men and women who served the nation and respected some of our basic fundamental values,” Reed said.

In January, Reed backed the nomination of retired General Lloyd J. Austin III as the first Black defense secretary. He decided to support Austin despite having said he’d never again support waiving a seven-year “cooling off” period between military service and the top civilian defense job.

Reed talked about rooting out extremism in the military following the arrest of active military personnel and veterans in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. He noted that Austin directed commanding officers and supervisors to institute a one-day stand-down to address extremism within the nation’s armed forces.

“Men and women in the armed forces have to not only protect the Constitution, but live out its values,” Reed said.

He spoke out against Fox News host Tucker Carlson for mocking women serving in the armed forces. Carlson ridiculed President Joe Biden for saying the US military had created uniforms to fit women properly, created maternity flight suits for those who are pregnant, and updated requirements for hairstyles. “Pregnant women are going to fight our wars,” Carlson said. “It’s a mockery of the US military.”

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Reed said that if Carlson enlisted, “he would see the value that women can and do contribute to the military.”

As Armed Services Committee chairman, Reed recently held hearings to confirm Kathleen H. Hicks as the first woman to serve as deputy secretary of defense.

On the global stage, Reed said the Department of Defense is shifting its attention to the Pacific as China increases the size of its military.

“It requires looking at the equipment systems of the last two decades, which have been essentially focused on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “It requires a different mindset and equipment.”

He said submarines will be an important part of the military presence in the Pacific, and Rhode Islanders will help build those submarines.

Electric Boat, a division of General Dynamics, employs some 4,000 people in Rhode Island, and most involved with submarine production at Quonset Point, plus an engineering office outside of Newport. In February, Electric Boat announced it will add 2,200 jobs in Rhode Island and Connecticut, including some 1,300 jobs at Quonset Point.

In November, General Dynamics Electric Boat announced that the U.S. Navy had awarded it a $9.4-billion contract modification to build Columbia-class submarines.

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In Afghanistan, the May 1 deadline for possible withdrawal of US troops is “very difficulty to deal with,” Reed said. He said he hopes that Secretary of State Antony Blinken can succeed with his proposal to accelerate the peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Blinken has proposed having foreign ministers and special envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the U.S. discuss a “unified approach” to supporting peace in Afghanistan.

“It would remove the United States from negotiating on behalf of the Afghan government and put in a more disinterested party,” Reed said. “And that would give us a new opportunity to go the Taliban and say, ‘OK, we have a new day.’ That is the first step.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.