Is Washington serious about rebuilding America’s aging, shrunken military? The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) will give us a clearer idea of the answer to this question.
President Trump’s “skinny budget” released in March signaled his intent to seek a 2018 defense topline of $603 billion. It also touched off an ongoing debate on the proper resourcing for defense. Most recently, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis faced congressional criticism for presenting a defense budget that defers troop expansion and procurement decisions until the Pentagon completes a new national defense strategy.
The chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees seem unwilling to wait for those decisions. Both committees have produced versions of the NDAA that would significantly increase defense funding. However, as is the case with most legislative proposals, each version contains both hits and misses. Here are three of each.
The first hit is with funding. Both committees propose spending more on defense than the president requested. The House proposes $623.8 billion (with $10 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations) and the Senate proposes $640 billion. Based on our assessment that the U.S. military has deteriorated to a marginal level of military capability and capacity based on our national interests and threats, the Heritage Foundation recommended a 2018 funding level of $632 billion, which lies comfortably between these two proposals.
Additionally, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) reportedly secured a deal with House leadership to increase defense spending by 5 percent annually for the next three years. If that’s the case, it would help provide needed fiscal stability for defense. Both proposals, especially the Senate’s, will allow the Pentagon to procure desperately needed ships, planes, helicopters, and other equipment — items disappointingly absent from the president’s budget.
The second hit is with end strength. Both versions would grow our military forces, in particular the Army. They also support the president’s requests for growth of the Air Force and Navy. The House version fully resources the Army chief of staff’s unfunded request to grow the active Army by 10,000 soldiers and provides smaller increases for the Army National Guard and Reserve. The Senate provides roughly half that amount. These increases, particularly the House’s proposal, can help offset the ill-conceived cuts to the military inflicted during the Obama administration.
The third hit is with pay raise. The House proposes to match the uniformed pay raise to the national Employment Cost Index (ECI) of 2.4 percent. This complies with existing law. The Senate follows the president’s budget request, seeking only a 2.1 percent raise. The armed forces face a very competitive labor market with unemployment at 4.3 percent — a level that most believe constitutes “full employment.” For the military to remain competitive in this arena, Congress would do well to follow the law and embrace the House (and ECI) figure of 2.4 percent.
The first miss is with Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). Neither the House nor the Senate version of the NDAA authorizes a BRAC, as requested by the administration. The Defense Department estimates that it has 22 percent more infrastructure than it needs and that, by divesting itself of excess bases, it could save approximately $2 billion annually. That $2 billion could be used to buy needed equipment or to improve readiness. Opposition to BRAC reflects Congress at its worst, protecting unneeded bases out of pure parochial self-interest.
The second miss is with the space service. The House version of the NDAA authorizes the creation of a new military service — the “U.S. Space Corps” — within the Air Force. Congress’ frustration with military space efforts is understandable, given the failure of recent commercial space launches and the resurgence of Russian and Chinese efforts to militarize space. But creating a new service is not the solution.
A new service will be costly in terms of overhead with new positions required and will subdivide efforts. Rather than change the organization chart, Congress should work with the Pentagon and the Air Force to establish greater accountability for results. The Senate’s proposal to require the commander of Air Force Space Command to serve a term of at least six years is a step in the right direction, providing needed stability in that key position.
The third miss is with the audit of the Pentagon, which is overdue and important. By September 2017, the military services are required to validate that their financial statements are ready for audit. All of the services are working hard to meet that deadline, but the military faces a great challenge in getting “audit ready” due to its size, complexity and dispersion. The Senate’s proposal to cut the pay of service secretaries if they are unable to obtain an audit opinion on their financial statements by 2020 is wrong-headed and establishes a precedent that should be avoided.
Compensation for service secretaries is already comparatively low for what the nation asks of them. We might just as well propose that the salary for members of Congress be cut if they fail to pass the defense budget on time. Instead of penalties, Congress should focus on incentives and reducing the challenges involved in auditing the Pentagon.
In the main, both House and Senate versions of the NDAA represent desperately needed relief for our nation’s military, which has been slowly weakened by six years of budget cuts and persistent overuse through continuous deployments overseas. Both committees should be commended for their thoughtful approaches.
What’s needed now is to incorporate the best proposals in both versions into a single authorization act. Let’s hope this work proceeds expeditiously, so the Defense Department can get on with rebuilding and reforming our depleted military.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 7/6/17