Brace for debates on legacy systems, acquisition reform in NDAA, lawmaker says

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said the defense budget debate could be “pretty contentious” when it comes to convincing congress members to divest of legacy systems that heavily involve their districts.

Congressional debates around defunding old weapons systems for new technology to save jobs and keep constituents happy could get heated as lawmakers begin shaping the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), former co-chair of the House Armed Services Committee’s Future of Defense Task Force, said the defense budget debate could be “pretty contentious” when it comes to divesting of legacy systems, particularly when members of Congress push back against those systems that heavily involve their districts.

“We have a lot of people, we have service chiefs come and testify before the committee and say, we want to get rid of this program, and yet, members of Congress, House and Senate, who represent these programs are not willing to divest,” Moulton said during the National Defense Industrial Base’s Joint All Domain Command and Control event July 12. “But it's politically easier just to talk about, Hey, are we raising defense budgets? Are we lowering them? And so we never get into the nuance of that debate.”

Republicans have decried the Biden administration’s $715 billion defense budget for fiscal 2022 as being insufficient to meet warfighter needs.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the HASC ranking member, has called the 2022 defense budget request “anemic” and pushed for a minimum 3% increase. Rogers said during a June 23 hearing that “slashing procurements and accelerating divestments produces nearly $13 billion in so-called savings. But the research and development of new capabilities increases by only $5 billion.”

Moulton, however, argued that such a position “completely misses the point” that supplanting legacy platforms with newer technologies can save money because they cost less.

“This is why China is able to create such a threat to us while having lower budgets. There's real potential for bipartisan compromise here,” Moulton said. “But at the end of the day, the obstacle to that is simply getting members of Congress to agree, to give up legacy platforms when they have parochial interests in those systems.”

Moulton also said acquisition reform would also underpin NDAA debates to improve the Pentagon’s ability to buy technology. 

"Unquestionably, we need to empower the private sector more and make sure that we can more easily accept those technologies into our force,” Moulton said. “And that's exactly what we were talking about with acquisition reform. But at the same time, we also need to invest more in basic research and development.”

“A lot of the technologies that are critical to our national security, fundamentally come out of research that's done at our universities and academic institutions...has no immediate or obvious defense implication...just fundamentally important to advancing our scientific and technological knowledge, and also is often research the private sector cannot justify doing because it's too risky.”

This year, he said, the goal is to “double down” and resourcing programs that work.

“We agonize for months and years over exactly what technology we're going to use five, nine years from now, and try to build that today rather than build a flexible dynamic platform that can accept new technology and be regularly updated down the road,” Moulton said.

“One of the things that we've decided to do in the short term is just double down on programs that really work,” Moulton said. “So we're identifying key programs that are producing innovation within DOD today and are successful, but are small and making sure we get more funding to those programs.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee will begin marking up its version of the bill July 19. The HASC will begin subcommittee markups July 29, delaying the full committee markup until Sept. 1.

This article first appeared on FCW, a Defense Systems partner site.