This week, the House passed the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) after an extended period of behind-the-scenes negotiation. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure next week. The bill authorizes $495.6 billion in discretionary base funding for the Pentagon and $63.7 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds. While the proposed legislation excised some of the more counterproductive measures that were part of previous versions and takes on modest reforms in tough areas like compensation, the final version of the bill makes clear that nominee for secretary of defense Ash Carter will have his hands full in tryingto rein in the Pentagon to be more costefficient and effective.
F-35 development and production is fully funded despite serious and persistent problems. Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight summarized some of the findings of the most recent annual report by the Pentagon’s Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E): “the flight test program ‘accomplished’ only 5,464 of 7,180 of the planned ‘baseline’ (originally planned for 2013) test points. That’s 24 percent fewer than were originally planned; the ‘mission systems’ (software) test points are 46 percent behind.” He adds, “Reliability is poor and ranges from 30 to 39 percent behind the current objective.” Finally, he relays that the report recommends that the current version of the aircraft “should be tested in direct comparison with legacy aircraft. In other words, it should be empirically established if the F-35 is a step forward, or a step backward.” The future of the F-35 is particularly worth watching as Sen. John McCain (RAZ) assumes the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Ash Carter undergoes the nomination process for secretary of defense; both have been critical of F-35 cost overruns and testing issues. [Winslow Wheeler, accessed 12/5/14]
The NDAA continues America’s massive financial commitment to its outdated nuclear weapons posture that prevents larger investments to address 21st century threats. While the final NDAA dropped earlier prohibitions on implementing New START, the bill includes a down payment of hundreds of millions of dollars for a much larger, multi-billion dollar unnecessary modernization program of the B-61. Instead, leaders should reassess America’s large financial commitment to nuclear weapons. As Sen. Dianne Feinstein (DCA) explains: “nuclear weapons are seen as a financial burden and a threat to global security. Furthermore, our nuclear stockpile is competing for limited defense spending, money that could be used to address more pressing challenges such as the fight against the Islamic State and defending against cyberattacks. That’s why the amount the United States spends to maintain and modernize its nuclear arsenal is so staggering. Over the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office reports that the United States will spend $355 billion on nuclear weapons. We’re holding far more nuclear weapons than are necessary, and the cost is undermining other national security priorities. It’s time we take a long look at how we can responsibly reduce our stockpile.” [Dianne Feinstein, 12/3/14]
The NDAA funds weapons programs that the military didn’t ask for, doubling down on today’s force at the expense of adapting to meet emerging threats. The bill includes nearly $800 million to fund a multi-year, multi-billion dollar program to overhaul the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, despite the Navy not requesting the funds. This comes despite serious questions about the utility of aircraft carriers in emerging operational environments. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has warned that “the large aircraft carrier may no longer be an effective weapon system for defending U.S. interests overseas as new technologies designed to threaten and destroy surface ships are developed and spread to many countries.” The conclusion of reducing Navy reliance on vulnerable carriers is supported by bipartisan experts. In a budgeting exercise conducted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), all four teams from the think tanks CSIS, AEI, CNAS, and CSBA reduced the number of carriers in the Navy in both full-sequester and half-sequester scenarios. Even the conservative think tank AEI reduced from 11 to 7 carriers in a half-sequester scenario. [CBO, 11/13. CSBA, 3/14/14]
The NDAA takes modest steps at compensation reform while withholding authority to save money other ways, such as closing excess bases. Compensation reform is a difficult challenge for the Pentagon and Congress. Excluding war costs, personnel costs have increased 90% since 2001, while the number of personnel in the military has increased by 3%. If the rates of increase during recent years continue, personnel costs will consume the Pentagon’s entire budget by 2039. While reforming compensation and personnel costs requires great ethical care, this year’s NDAA began modest steps in that direction. The bill provides for a 1% increase in troop pay, down from what would have been 1.8%, and freezes the salary of general and flag officers. A $3 increase in military healthcare (Tricare) copays was also included in the bill. Debate over the wisdom of larger changes has been tabled until the release of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission report in February of next year. Looking to the future debate, NSN Senior Advisor Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton (Ret.) observes, “With respect to the needed reforms to military compensation, two points. First, we need to address the differences between the current system and what the troops want. Second, and most important, is the needed reform of the current twenty-years-or-nothing retirement system. It makes no sense to serve years in a dangerous specialty and receive no retirement benefits because you left before the arbitrary twentyyear point.”
Meanwhile, the NDAA restricts the Pentagon from saving money in other key areas, like Base Realignment and Closures (BRAC). This decision was made despite the Army saying it has up toa 28% excess in infrastructure and experts saying a fresh BRAC round could save $17 billion over the next decade. The NDAA preserves the status quo on Guantanamo, obstructing the transfer of cleared detainees. The bill would extend two provisions affecting the Guantanamo Bay detention facility that prevent the use of U.S. government funds to transfer detainees that have been cleared for release. More than half of the remaining detainees are awaiting transfer, and many policymakers and military officials – including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Gen. David Petraeus (Ret.), among many others – have voiced their support for shuttering the prison once and for all. Last year, Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert (Ret.), the commander who set up the detention facility, called for its closure, saying that “the entire detention and interrogation strategy was wrong” and that it “squandered the goodwill of the world” and “helped our enemies.” But the NDAA could have been much worse. The legislation would still allow the transfer of detainees without the use of federal funds, which has allowed the transfer of several detainees over the past year to third-party nations – for example, just last month the United States transferred five cleared detainees to Georgia and Slovakia. The NDAA also does not include a discussed ban on the transfer of detainees to Yemen that would have blocked repatriation for many of the remaining detainees. [Michael Lehnert, 12/12/13]