U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, visited several Missouri military installations this week as part of a three-day tour focused on security and defense, including Whiteman Air Force Base.
McCaskill toured Whiteman on Monday, meeting with military leaders to receive updates about the base’s missions. She spoke to the Democrat by phone Thursday about her visit.
“I’m not sure Missourians realize what strategic importance we have in our nation’s defense. At Whiteman, that is very much a strategic defense installation as it relates to the B-2, A-10 and other missions at Whiteman,” she said. “I had the opportunity to talk about the new building that is a very important military construction project, commanders about challenges they’re facing and they worry about, and making sure people working on that building have appropriate ID to get on the base …”
The building McCaskill is referring to is a consolidated operations facility, which replaces the collection of temporary facilities dispersed around the base. McCaskill helped include $29.5 million in last year’s national defense bill for the project, according to a news release.
“I got to get a briefing from the commander of every mission at Whiteman and learn about what they’re doing,” McCaskill continued. “The thing about Whiteman that’s amazing is how integrated it is. I remember visiting years ago and talking about efforts to integrate and they have, working side by side with different branches, the Air Force and National Guard. They’re working seamlessly, an example for the rest of the county on how you do this right.”
Whiteman is home to the 20th Attack Squadron, a unit that includes technicians, administrators, and pilots who operate the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. Part of McCaskill’s tour included meeting with leaders of these drone operations, an area she advocates for and which she called a “strategic program.”
“We can get incredible intelligence, and the kind of enemy we’re fighting, it’s crucial we can observe where they are and what they’re doing, then go in and take out a supply line, take out oil facilities, take out weapons caches, places we know they’re storing money,” she said. “… The capability of these drones and the skill of the pilots, there are far fewer civilian casualties with this method than we traditionally had when we go in with special ops forces. It’s a great advantage and we need to continue to invest in this technology. Unmanned aircraft will be a very important part of our national security.”
She added that she’s proud of the men and women in the drone program, as they are “really making a difference in the fight against ISIL.”
During her three-day tour, McCaskill spoke about her opinions on a proper budget for military operations. She told the Democrat one provision she has included this year is an increase in mental health resources for the National Guard and their families to help with stress after returning from deployment, as well as making funding for the mental health of unmanned drone pilots a priority.
“Maybe the biggest priority I have is being honest with the American people about the budget needs of the military,” McCaskill said. “The Overseas Contingency Operations Fund that is used only for the fight in the Middle East, it came about at the beginning of the Iraq War. It’s never been paid for, it’s always quote, unquote off-budget. There was never any budget to offset that money or to balance that money anyplace else.
“What has happened now rather than be honest, the House basically raided the Overseas Contingency Operations Fund to fund the basic needs of the military. I don’t think that’s the right way, I think it’s disingenuous. I think we should put all military needs on the budget, tell people what those needs are and then do our best to work toward a balanced budget. (For legislators) to say they are fiscally responsible and then raid this fund, that doesn’t make sense to me.”
McCaskill’s tour also included Jefferson Barracks, Fort Leonard Wood, the 139th Airlift Wing, Missouri National Guard facilities and Kansas City’s National Security Campus.
She added that she’s proud of the National Guard unit in Springfield, which repairs Blackhawk and Apache helicopters, for saving millions of dollars by reworking wiring or blades rather than buying new parts.
She also commended the Cyber Unit in St. Louis, which is comprised of men and women who have full-time jobs and expertise in technology and also serve in the Guard.
“We’ve got to really understand that this is a new kind of warfare,” she said. “Our enemy would like to not only hack into our system but disable our electricity grid or our ability to maybe even vote or to bank and so we have to be both offensive and defensive in this space. It’s a great idea to leverage this expertise in the private sector and have that talent be part of the Guard and lend their talents to national security when they train with the Guard. It’s a win-win for national security, the Guard and the safety of our country.”
According to the Associated Press, McCaskill confirmed during a stop at a National Guard facility at Springfield-Branson National Airport that she plans to run for re-election in 2018. She was voted to the Senate in 2006 and won re-election in 2012 against Republican Rep. Todd Akin.
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-530-0138 or @NicoleRCooke.