The House version of the 2019 NDAA marks a good step forward in the drive to rebuild the U.S. military.
Good news for those who recognize the need to rebuild our military: the House of Representatives has passed the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with broad bipartisan support, 351–66. The bill continues last year’s welcome emphasis on strengthening our armed forces.
February’s passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 established a topline defense budget of $716 billion for FY 2019, removing much of the drama from this year’s NDAA debate. That budget increase was an essential first step on the Defense Department’s long march to improve readiness and modernize forces. The budget for 2020 and beyond is uncertain. Because of that, 2019 authorizations must set a foundation that will support the department’s rebuilding initiative in the years that follow.
In general, the House has done an admirable job, crafting policy and equipment authorizations designed to ensure sound stewardship and accountability. However, as is usual with legislation that clocks in at more than one thousand pages, the bill contains some notable “misses” as well as “hits.”
The legislation adds 16,900 service members to the Armed Forces, increasing the end strength of all services. The Navy’s active component gains 7,500 sailors; the active Army increases by 4,500, and the active Air Force by four thousand. It is an important step toward recovering the capabilities and readiness lost to the budget cuts of recent years. Importantly, the bill emphases readiness and training—the cornerstones of an effective force. For example, it funds increased flight hours for pilots throughout the services.
In accordance with law and the Employment Cost Index, the bill embraces the full 2.6 percent military pay raise due in 2019. With the U.S. unemployment rate at its lowest point in seventeen years, recruiters need every cent available to help persuade today’s youth to join the military. A full pay raise aids in that effort. Still, recruiters face a daunting task. The Army reports it will lower its 2018 recruiting goal by 3,500 soldiers, due in part to difficulties attracting sufficient numbers of applicants.
The House-passed bill also tackles the recent growth of Defense Agencies and Field Activities, aka the Fourth Estate. Typically, these agencies were created to achieve efficiencies by centralizing services that each military department was executing individually. However, their budgets grew exponentially, peaking in 2010 at more than $110 billion. The NDAA seeks to rein in the Fourth Estate spending by establishing the Pentagon’s Chief Management Officer as the singular official responsible for revising their budgets and reviewing their missions in a report to Congress every five years.
On the procurement side, the NDAA grants the Navy authority to contract for two aircraft carriers at once instead of just one. This will save the American taxpayer more than $1 billion, while speeding construction. It also will deliver more F-35 fighter jets to the services, enabling them to replace fourth generation platforms with fifth generation technology at an accelerated pace.
It also supports the administration’s National Security Strategy by emphasizing the importance of both the nuclear mission and missile defense. For example, it authorizes the National Nuclear Security Administration to engineer and develop a low-yield nuclear warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles, as outlined in this year’s Nuclear Posture Review. And, in an effort to increase pressure on Russia to return to compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the law also calls for additional assets to protect our European allies from Moscow’s illegal intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
In other areas, the NDAA falls short. It fails to authorize base closures and realignment (BRAC), an efficiency both the Congress and the DOD knows is needed. The Pentagon didn’t even request authority for a new round of BRAC this year, likely because it feels “beat down” by seven consecutive years of congressional rejection.
In lieu of calling for BRAC, the House-passed bill would let state governors submit closure requests to the secretary of defense. If the secretary agrees, the request would be then submitted to Congress for approval. It’s a process unlikely ever to be used. Few governors would willingly “self-BRAC.” Instead, we will have another year in which the Pentagon forgoes $2 billion worth of savings in real-estate management.
The legislation also “un-cancels” the recapitalization of the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft. The new National Defense Strategy had no use for this large platform, which the Air Force deemed unsurvivable in any major-power conflict. Money spent recapitalizing the JSTARS wastes money that could be applied to much more pressing needs.
Similarly, in the shipbuilding account, the House added two Littoral Combat Ships (LCS)—one more than the Navy asked for, and one more than is needed to maintain the shipbuilding industrial base in preparation for the FY2020 future frigate contract award. The LCS has disturbingly limited capabilities against a near-peer adversary. The funds spent producing an extra LCS would be better spent elsewhere—either to develop a new combat-relevant frigate or to ease the shortfall in submarine capacity.