WASHINGTON — Tuesday’s election of Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate means aerospace powerhouse Alabama is due to lose a strong voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee for the first time in 20 years.
Known as the “Cotton State,” Alabama’s economic engine is aerospace. And its interests were represented on the SASC by Republican Jeff Sessions from 1998 until President Donald Trump appointed Sessions as U.S. attorney general, and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange took his seat in the Senate and on the committee.
“It’s going to be a loss to our state to lose our seat on the Armed Services Committee, because Hunstville is so dependent on that,” Strange said Wednesday. “So I’m hopeful that those interests will be represented.”
Strange, who leaves office at the end of the year, planned to press upon Jones the importance of Huntsville and national defense. “I’ll do everything I can to get him up to speed,” Strange said.
Strange lost a GOP primary to conservative firebrand Roy Moore, who in turn lost to Jones in a dramatic and closely watched race. With the focus on sexual misconduct allegations against Moore and whether Trump’s endorsement would prevail, national defense and its local nexus was heavily eclipsed as an issue in the race.
“I’m a Democrat and I will not run away from Democratic values,” Jones said during a recent interview with AL.com. “I don’t think government is bad. I don’t care what people say. Government built our interstates, provides rural health care, provided our missile defense, and has provided help in education.”
There are 300 aerospace companies in Alabama, and aerospace manufacturing accounts for about 12,500 jobs there, according to the Alabama Department of Commerce. Mobile is home to the Airbus commercial airplanes division and an assembly site for A320 commercial jets. Fort Rucker is home to the Army’s helicopter training center.
The jewel in the crown is Huntsville, home to Redstone Arsenal, a major research, engineering and test center that houses the Pentagon’s critical missile defense and the Army’s aviation managers. It’s also home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the U.S. government’s civilian rocketry and spacecraft propulsion research center.
In his brief time in the Senate, Strange pushed hard for added littoral combat ships, built by Mobile shipbuilder Austal. SASC Chairman John McCain has repeatedly hammered the LCS, calling the program a “great disaster” for its long delays and cost overruns.
From inside the SASC, Sessions had been able to push back against McCain’s efforts to ban Russian RD-180 engines that Alabama-based United Launch Alliance uses for Boeing’s Delta IV and Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V rocket launchers.
It will be up to the Senate’s Republican leadership to name a Republican to the seat and maintain its 14-13 majority on the committee. It’s a decision likely to be announced after the new Senate is seated in January.
One likely contender from the GOP — Sen. Todd Young, a former Marine captain and Senate staffer from Indiana — deferred to leadership’s decision. He noted that as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he cannot, by GOP conference rules, serve on both committees at once.
“One would have to make a decision,” he told Defense News in an interview. “I’m really happy doing what I’m doing. I worked for [former Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Chairman] Dick Lugar for 18 months and saw him chair that committee, and the issue sets are of great interest to me. So is Armed Services as well.”
Sen. Richard Shelby, a senior appropriator from Alabama, has also jousted with McCain on the ULA issue. He said Wednesday his position allows the state’s defense interests to be “well-served.”
Shelby suggested he has no plans to serve on the SASC and Senate Appropriations Committee, which would require him to receive a waiver from Senate GOP leadership. He is in line to succeed Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., he said.
“I was eight years on the Armed Services Committee, but I chose to go to approps,” Shelby said. “If I’d stayed, I’d be senior to Sen. McCain, and I’d be the chair.”
Military Times Capitol Hill Bureau Chief Leo Shane III contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.