WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee will hold its annual defense authorization bill mark-up on Wednesday, a day-long legislative marathon that’s expected to cover a host of hot-button national security policy issues.
The Senate Armed Services Committee is set to mark-up its draft of the legislation the week of May 21. Officials from both committees are hoping to have their chambers pass final drafts by mid-summer.
Here are seven provisions to watch in the latest version of the $717 billion fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.
1. Fourth Estate. HASC Chair Mac Thornberry eased his controversial proposal for a 25 percent cut to Pentagon support agencies, tagged the “fourth estate” for their ancillary relationship to war fighting.
Rather than shuttering agencies and otherwise prescribing cuts as initially suggested, the bill gives more deference to the Pentagon. It would charge the newly-created DoD chief management officer to find efficiencies and reduce by 25 percent the budget of certain department-wide activities, including logistics, human resources, services contracting and real property management, by 2021.
The this may yet be a friction point on Wednesday. Though HASC Democrats have panned the blanket cut as “unnecessary sequester-like” in Democrats’ own bill summary, a GOP aide defended it, saying, “You’re basically talking about the bureaucracy for the bureaucracy.”
2. JEDI battle. The bill would fence half the funds for the Pentagon’s move to a commercial cloud until it delivers a report that explains its decision to award a sole-source contract for Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, that could give the winner a de facto monopoly in perpetuity. Critics have said only Amazon or Google can truly compete for the work, given how the contract is to be formulated.
DoD Comptroller David Norquist told lawmakers at a recent Senate hearing a required report justifying the sole-source vehicle would be submitted this week. DoD officials have defended the contracting vehicle as necessary for security reasons and said that multiple companies can team up.
3. Low-yield ballistic missile. Supporting the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, the bill authorizes $65 million for developing and producing a low-yield warhead to be carried on a submarine launched ballistic missile.
HASC Democrats have signaled a fight, arguing in their bill summary this is “breaking with decades of tradition” and both “lowering the threshold for using nuclear weapons, and increasing the risk of miscalculation.” The bill repeals a 15-year prohibition on developing and producing low-yield nuclear warheads absent congressional authorization.
4. Space Force. Space Force does not appear in the bill by name, but it does recycle a provision from last year’s effort that would establish a sub-unified command for space under U.S. Strategic Command for carrying out joint space war-fighting.
It would also establish both a new numbered Air Force responsible for space war-fighting and mandate the Air Force develop and implement a plan to increase the size of its space cadre. It would also mandate a special acquisition lane for space.
The measure comes as President Trump has repeatedly teased a ‘space force’ as a new military branch, reversing course on an idea Pentagon leaders opposed in last year’s NDAA. A related study mandated by the FY18 NDAA is due in weeks.
5. Russia sanctions. The bill provides a special rule that would allow President Trump to terminate Russia sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, if the President makes a certification to Congress that someone subject to sanctions is altering their relationship with Russia.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has requested Congress grant the administration such a waiver to allow breathing room to allies, like Vietnam and India, which are weaning themselves off Russian equipment but need to deal with Moscow to maintain their legacy equipment.
There’s a possible partisan fight here. This bill language was highlighted by Democrats who are expected to argue the bill is too broadly written and risks giving Trump the power to undo sanctions that passed in July by a veto-proof majority.
6. Aviation readiness crisis. The bill includes $39.4 billion aimed at fixing the military aviation “crisis” by getting more aircraft in the air, according to a GOP summary. While the Pentagon has refuted the characterization, the summary points to 25 deaths this spring due to military aviation mishaps and a Military Times investigation that showed on a significant jump in accidents.
While GOP aides have said the bill contains provisions that reflect a holistic effort, while HASC Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash., on Monday introduced a targeted amendment to establish an independent National Commission on Military Aviation Safety. The commission would assess the causes contributing to mishaps and and make recommendations on safety, training, maintenance, personnel, or other policies related to military aviation safety.
7. Turkey tensions. The bill would bar deliveries of any U.S. foreign military sale to the NATO ally until the secretaries of state and defense report to Congress on the U.S.-Turkish relationship—due within 60 days of the act’s passage.
Bill language spotlights the U.S. F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, which are to be co-produced with Turkey, as well as sales of the Patriot surface-to-air missile, CH-47 Chinook helicopter, AH-1 attack helicopter, UH-60 Blackhawk and F-16 fighter jet.
The bill would express a sense of Congress that the relationship is strained and that it would be strained further by Turkey’s pending purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air and missile defense system, which is incompatible with NATO systems.
Turkey has reportedly vowed to retaliate if the U.S. halts weapons sales to the country. The relationship has deteriorated over whether the U.S. will back Kurdish-led fighters against the Islamic State.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.