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Defense spending deal bristles with weapons Biden didn’t seek

It also marks a big win for GOP defense hawks over progressive Democrats

The omnibus appropriations bill will give the Navy an Arleigh Burke class destroyer that President Biden did not request.
The omnibus appropriations bill will give the Navy an Arleigh Burke class destroyer that President Biden did not request. (Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — The fiscal 2022 appropriations compromise that lawmakers unveiled early Wednesday would spend generously on the Pentagon and its contractors, marking a big win for GOP defense hawks over progressive Democrats.

Given world events, the hawks’ success in driving up the defense budget will probably continue apace.

Most of the Defense Department’s requests were fulfilled by the $782.5 billion defense package, but several ship and aircraft programs did better than most.

Democrats run the White House, the House and (just barely) the Senate. But this defense spending deal did not look like the product of a Democratic-controlled capital.

In fact, Michael R. Turner of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee and a senior member of its Armed Services panel, told a defense industry conference Wednesday that the final measure is “relatively like a Republican defense budget.”

Epic spending

The $782.5 billion total covers Pentagon budgets, including military construction, as well as nuclear weapons.

Montana Democrat Jon Tester, the chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said he and his colleagues produced “the best bill possible.”

Yet William Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a group that advocates restraining the defense budget, said the proposed Pentagon spending is higher than that during the Korean or Vietnam wars or the height of the Cold War, and a lot of it, he said, is excessive.

“Much of this money is wasted on dysfunctional weapons systems, outright waste, and an overly ambitious ‘cover-the-globe’ military strategy that fails to set priorities about the greatest security risks facing the United States and its allies,” Hartung said in a statement.

The $782.5 billion figure was some $42 billion above fiscal 2021 spending, or nearly 6 percent. It also topped President Joe Biden’s request by about $30 billion, and was some $4 billion more than senators had authorized for such programs, most of which was in the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.

If this budget continues to grow at 6 percent annually in nominal terms, it will exceed $1 trillion in four years.

But how the proposed level of defense spending for fiscal 2022 will actually compare with the current level depends on a number of factors, and the biggest of these is inflation, said Todd Harrison, a defense budget maven with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

Besides, Washington may not be done spending money on defense in fiscal 2022, he noted. “This bill shows that there is a renewed support in Congress for higher defense spending, spurred in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Harrison said in an email. “We may also see additional emergency supplemental funding enacted later in the year, depending on how things progress in Ukraine.”

Ships

Appropriators paid for the higher level of spending not just by adding money but by making innumerable small cuts across many programs. That effort was aided greatly by the fact that $3.3 billion Biden requested for Afghan security forces in fiscal 2022 was no longer required, and another $700 million previously enacted for that purpose was also available. What’s more, appropriators cut another $3.3 billion in so-called rescissions from a few dozen programs with unspent money from prior years.

Under the bill’s terms, plenty of Army and Marine Corps combat vehicle programs would net higher budgets in fiscal 2022 than the president sought. But the Navy’s private and public shipyards stand out as perhaps the biggest gainers in this bill. Many of the unrequested ships in the bill are made by constituents of Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican appropriator in the Senate.

The new bill would provide almost $27 billion for Navy ship construction, about $4.1 billion more than was requested. All or part of nine vessels that the president did not ask for are included in the final bill, such as:

— $1.9 billion for an Arleigh Burke class destroyer and associated parts for another one.
— $590 million for two Expeditionary Fast Transport ships built in Mobile, Ala.
— $250 million for parts of an amphibious ship made in nearby Mississippi.
— $577 million for an Expeditionary Sea Base program.
— $776 million for a fleet oiler refueling ship.
— $235 million for three so-called ship-to-shore connectors.

Updating the aging infrastructure of public shipyards is also well funded in this bill, with $465 million more than the current level and $219 million more than the Biden request.

Shelby will not seek reelection in 2022. But the region’s ship contractors will still have a good friend in a high place next year. Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker is expected to become either the ranking Republican or chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the next Congress.

Aircraft and more

Another major beneficiary of appropriators was military aircraft programs.

That is usually the case: Congress ordinarily orders more F-35 fighter jets than are formally requested.

This year lawmakers instead provided exactly the number of F-35s Biden ordered, though that still added up to $8.5 billion for 85 planes — plus another $2.1 billion for continued development of the fleet. That despite the fact that full-scale development work on the F-35 began more than two decades ago.

Other aircraft programs were instead this year’s major recipients of unrequested funds. One of the biggest winners: C-130J transport planes for Air National Guard and Reserve fleets. Washington will order 29 of these for $3.1 billion, or 20 more than requested.

Appropriators also found $900 million to use to buy a dozen F/A-18E/F Super Hornets that the administration did not formally request.

Besides those unusually plump ship and aircraft programs, the bill contains the usual pantheon of perennial recipients of unrequested appropriations. These include $950 million for the National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account, $578 million for cancer research, and $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system, on top of $500 million requested for U.S.-Israeli cooperative anti-missile initiatives.

Tester, the Senate’s Defense spending cardinal, said the bill Congress will consider in the coming days contains what is needed to protect Americans in a dangerous world.

“We need to pass this bill immediately in order to respond to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and other challenges around the world,” Tester said in a statement.

Once the bill becomes law — more than five months into fiscal 2022 — Congress will receive a request for fiscal 2023 and, undoubtedly, reprogramming and perhaps supplemental requests to deal with the crisis in Eastern Europe and whatever else fate holds in store.

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