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Analysis: What Matters Most in the NDAA

Obscurities and omissions define this year’s defense authorization bill

In this year’s NDAA, House Armed Services Mac Thornberry has required cuts to agencies that handle logistics, human resources and services contracting. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
In this year’s NDAA, House Armed Services Mac Thornberry has required cuts to agencies that handle logistics, human resources and services contracting. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The massive defense authorization bill approved by the House Armed Services panel early Thursday morning is a consequential measure — but not for the reasons most people think.

The $708.1 billion bill, which the House plans to debate the week of May 21, would endorse the largest budget for defense since World War II, adjusting for inflation and when war spending is taken out of the equation.

But the measure does not actually provide a single penny. That is the job of appropriators, though they generally follow the authorizers’ suit.

So what is relatively unimportant about the authorization bill is the fact that it authorized so much hardware — 77 F-35 fighter jets, 13 warships and more.

Also of little immediate impact are the dozens of reports and briefings lawmakers want on subjects big and small.

And you can stop worrying about the dozens of Democratic amendments that were defeated along party-line votes in last week’s nearly 15-hour markup, though some of them (whether to build more lower-yield nuclear weapons) were more consequential than others (what weapons can be in a military parade in Washington).

The parts of the sweeping authorization bill that will, in reality, have the most impact are its often obscure policy prescriptions. In some cases, the story is the omission of policy.

Base closures

Here’s one that stands out not because it happened, but because it did not. The Trump administration did not request a new military base closure round, and the House committee did not authorize one.

Yet the Defense Department has about a quarter more infrastructure than it needs, by some estimates. That’s billions of dollars that could be moved elsewhere to strengthen the military or meet other budgetary needs.

The bill would instead authorize the Pentagon to close smaller installations without going through a formal base closure commission process in cases where the governors of the affected states agree.

It’s small potatoes, and it’s seemingly all that Congress can muster right now. But Congress has authorized base closure rounds six times before. So it’s not as if it’s not doable.

Overhead cuts

Even though his bill avoids launching new base closures, House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas still wants to make the Pentagon more efficient. For several years running he has joined with his Senate counterpart, Arizona Republican John McCain, in enacting revisions to the Pentagon’s purchasing rules.

Their efforts appear to be starting to have some positive effect on the cost and schedule of new programs, based on a recent Government Accountability Office review, though it is too early to draw final conclusions.

In this year’s bill, Thornberry has required a 25 percent cut by 2021 to the budget for agencies that handle logistics, human resources, services contracting and so-called real property maintenance. He also wants to eliminate a couple of organizations. Billions of dollars are at stake. These agencies spend on the order of $100 billion a year.

That could save money. But critics, including the panel’s top Democrat, Adam Smith of Washington, question whether the proposal will gut key functions.

In the late 1990s, House Armed Services forced the Pentagon to cut acquisition personnel. Years later, department officials, independent auditors and some lawmakers concluded that the cutbacks had eviscerated a skilled workforce, and it hurt oversight of the post-9/11 spending surge.

Whether that unfortunate history repeats or Thornberry is successful, this proposal is a big deal.

People in uniform

The measure would authorize adding more than 16,000 military personnel to the ranks, for a total of about 2.2 million active and reservist personnel. And the House bill would give those on the payroll in fiscal 2019 a 2.6 percent raise, among other special pays and bonuses.

Unlike most of what the Armed Services panels authorize, the prescriptions for so-called end strength and pay (not to mention military construction projects) can be appropriated only if they are authorized.

The services have been growing their ranks for several years, and the new proposal would expand them further. Personnel are expensive, and carry downstream costs for their benefits.

Every dollar spent on hiring, training, equipping and supporting a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine is a dollar that cannot go to modernization and maintenance. That’s not to say one kind of spending is important and the other isn’t. But it’s a critical tradeoff that is a central dilemma of defense budgeting.

Also, the Pentagon and Congress have to make sure the bigger military has the gear and training it needs to be effective — no small task — or else the larger units won’t be worth their cost.

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Reorganizing the Navy

After a spate of collisions involving U.S. warships in the Pacific last year, a Navy review panel criticized the Pacific Fleet’s unique organization as a factor in the mishaps.

In the Pacific, the Navy is permitted by statute to handle its own affairs in some respects. For example, a single officer in Hawaii decides how many ships to deploy where and for how long — as well as whether those on the ships are properly trained and equipped for their patrols. The post-accident review panel said the officer was putting ships at sea even though they were not ready.

The bill would move the duty of determining readiness to an officer in Norfolk, Virginia, who is focused on preparedness. This change, if it works as planned, may make the Navy more capable in the Pacific.

Cyber reporting

Speaking of making sure troops and weapons are ready to fight (or at least not crash), the panel would require the Pentagon to submit new sets of detailed information on training, equipment and personnel that are focused on cyber and space missions.

The obscure rules change would seem to give lawmakers (and perhaps the services themselves) more insight into the degree to which the military is getting ready for emerging missions, not just yesterday’s wars.

Treaties with Russia

The bill continues to restrict U.S. participation in the Open Skies Treaty, the Cold War pact between the United States and Russia that enables each side to overfly the other’s territory using certified surveillance planes.

Russia needs the treaty more than does America, which relies mostly on satellite images to stay on top of what Russia is doing, a senior House Armed Services aide told reporters. Members want the U.S. government to use Russia’s reliance on the treaty to leverage possible concessions in other areas.

But there’s a risk that if Russian awareness of America’s military posture is not accurate, Moscow may miscalculate in a crisis.

The committee also continued to move the United States out of participation in another Cold War pact, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which Russia is said to be violating by its work on new missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers.

If the president does not certify to Congress that Russia has returned to compliance with the treaty within a year, the bill says, then the United States is no longer bound by the treaty “as a matter of United States law.”

Hawks in Congress want to ditch the illusion of a treaty that’s only constraining the U.S. military as it seeks not only to prepare for potential war with Russia, but also to vie with a Chinese military that is proliferating missiles in Asia without any range restrictions.

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Waiving Russia sanctions

The bill would permit the Trump administration to waive sanctions against nations that conduct defense trade with Russia as long as those nations are trying to reduce such trade. Defense Secretary James Mattis has argued that sanctions on India for its recent purchase from Russia of an air and missile defense system would hurt U.S. efforts to engage with India.

The provision softens the committee’s otherwise hard line on Russia, but this exception could help the U.S.-India relationship, which increasingly features weapons deals and cooperative efforts. The bill would even change the name of Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command to reflect the current and future importance of the Indian Ocean and the subcontinent.

Protected species

This would seem to be one of the less important provisions in the authorization bill. But that conclusion would be wrong.

The House bill, as amended, would keep two species — the sage grouse and the lesser prairie chicken — off the endangered list for a decade. Supporters of the provision worry that protecting these birds on bases crimps usable space on training ranges.

To the degree that argument holds water, the provision would have a positive impact on the military.

But the controversy itself is more important than the merits of the arguments. This issue has tied up the defense bill in the past and could do so again. And if it’s not the sage grouse, it will be something else — nearly every year, the authorization bill is hung up by some issue that is not, at least at first glance, about defense.

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