Why Congress and the Pentagon Should Bypass Trump’s Defense Spending Bill
The NDAA markup is a chance for leaders on Hill and the Pentagon to show they are the badly-needed adults in the room on defense spending.
This isn’t a normal year for national security. When the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee calls President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget request “inadequate...illegal and...dead on arrival,” the pressure is on for Congress and the Pentagon to work together to fill the leadership void created by an inexperienced and incoherent White House.
I’ve seen firsthand how Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill can work collaboratively with the Pentagon on shared national security and defense priorities that make sense for our troops and advance taxpayer interests. Although I spent most of my time in the Pentagon working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, my final job in the Department of the Army illuminated how critical a hardy budget request is for millions of U.S. servicemembers. The impact of the budget on the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps can be seen in the individual service branches’ budgets—which comprise the vast majority of the Pentagon’s budget. That’s where much of the partisanship fades away, since those funds directly support the well-being of U.S. servicemembers. But other decisions on defense spending can be less collegial.
This week, the House and Senate Armed Services committees begin marking up the defense authorization bill that will govern spending next year, fiscal 2018. Mark-up is when members of Congress meet to amend and otherwise propose changes to the original House and Senate defense spending bills before sending them up to their full committees for a vote.
It’s an important moment for leaders in Congress and the Pentagon to work collaboratively to get many spending details right. Just take NATO. Trump’s lack of interest in or understanding of foreign affairs not only has allowed Russia to undermine the core principles of American democracy here at home without cost, but it has emboldened Putin’s longstanding interest in weakening and ultimately destabilizing the NATO alliance. Right now, all that stands between even more Russian adventurism is a strong NATO supported by the 30,000 U.S. Army soldiers stationed in Europe who are trained, equipped, and in a state of readiness designed to make them look like the 300,000 soldiers that largely deterred Soviet aggression during the Cold War.
Elsewhere, China appears emboldened to fill Trump’s global leadership vacuum, and North Korea’s repeated and increasingly threatening missile tests seek to call Trump’s “peace through strength” bluff.
As authorizers and appropriators finalize work on their respective defense bills, there are several areas where Republicans and Democrats can and should find common cause with an engaged Pentagon
First, Congress and the Pentagon are committed to ensuring that U.S. service members have access to the most advanced and effective technologies available. Cutting edge software that made the cell phone more powerful than the desktop computer can also transform how the soldier in the field gathers, accesses, integrates, and transmits information. The military departments must be funded to take advantage of the best that the private sector has to offer, both in technology and talent. That is one reason why in 2016, we launched the Army Digital Service—the first of its kind in a military department—to better integrate the efforts of the Defense Digital Service and Army Cyber Command. Congress should fund it fully.
Second, Hill and Pentagon staff must take real action to update the structure and requirements of the much-maligned acquisition process for the speed of technology and the benefit of the taxpayer, rather than making organizational tweaks only for sake of change. Current systems and programs must be scrutinized to ensure they meet troops’ needs in time to make a difference. That’s why we created the Army’s Rapid Capabilities Office, with the objective of closing capability gaps by ensuring cutting-edge technologies were fielded quickly enough to have an impact. As former Army Secretary Fanning said at the office’s launch, its mission was “to prioritize cross-domain, integrated capabilities in order to confront emerging threats and advance America's military dominance.” This initiative, which sought to fill the procurement window between the Rapid Equipping Force’s six-month time frame and the years often required by formal programs of record, has already begun to show results in the critical space of electronic warfare.
Finally, it’s crucial that programs that aren’t meeting expectations are thoroughly examined to ensure that they’re still relevant to the threat and fielded in a timeframe to make them worth the expense. Recently, the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, highlighted flaws in the Army’s Integrated Air and Missile Battle Command System, or IBCS, a program promising enhanced aircraft and missile tracking by providing each service’s anti-missile efforts with a “single, unambiguous view of the battle space.” This $5.4 billion program has already failed to meet its initial timeline of six and a half years, a delay GAO called “inconsistent with best practices.” In fact, the Army’s 2018 budget recently revealed the program is likely to be delayed by an additional four years. There’s little doubt if IBCS were in production today, as initially promised, we’d soon have substantially better and more integrated theater missile defenses to protect troops stationed near the front lines in Korea or Poland, But this is not the case. As a result of these delays, the program needs increased oversight and realism in both requirements, timeframe, and capabilities.
With its widely-panned budget request, the White House marginalized itself and undermined its seriousness when it comes to the 2018 defense authorization and appropriations process. Now is the time for the the real leaders in OSD, the military departments, and Congress to step up and fill the void; taking the steps necessary to ensure our military remains the strongest, most lethal, and technologically adroit force the world has ever known.