WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Monday signed a $740 billion bill authorizing funding for the Defense Department in fiscal 2022.
The National Defense Authorization Act includes a spending boost for the military, adding $25 billion to what the White House requested. And the bill includes a 2.7% pay raise for troops, changes to how the military prosecutes some sexual misconduct crimes and an independent commission to review the two-decade war in Afghanistan.
This is the 61st year in a row Congress and the president have approved the sweeping defense policy bill. The legislation also includes another $28 billion to fund Energy Department nuclear weapons programs.
“There’s a lot to be proud of in this bill,” Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement, citing the pay raise, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and climate provisions. “Ultimately, this year’s NDAA focuses on what makes our country strong: our economy, diversity, innovation, allies and partners, democratic values, and our troops.”
The Senate passed the NDAA Dec. 15, following several months of debate and questions over whether it would even be completed.
The increased top line pays for 12 additional F/A-18 Super Hornets, five more F-15EX jets to bring the total to 17, and another five ships beyond the eight requested, including two attack submarines and two destroyers.
The bill prevents the Air Force from retiring any of its A-10 Warthogs, which the service has long sought to do, but would allow retirements of other aircraft.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., lauded the bill for its investment in new technologies such as artificial intelligence, hypersonics and quantum computing, as well as its focus on strategic competition with China.
Reed also pointed to $13 billion in the bill that would go to fund submarine research, development and production, which he said would support workers, suppliers and businesses in Rhode Island.
And Reed applauded the bill’s provision to increase parental leave for all servicemembers to 12 weeks after the birth, adoption or foster care placement of a child as well as a new two-week bereavement leave benefit for both service members and federal civilians.
The Afghanistan commission created by the NDAA will study the entire scope of the war, from its beginning in 2001 to the final withdrawal in August. It will also publicly release an unclassified report on lessons learned and recommendations to “ensure those mistakes are never repeated,” commission sponsor Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, said in a release earlier this month after the Senate passed the NDAA.
Protect Our Defenders, a group that advocates for military sexual assault survivors and changes in how the service prosecutes such crimes, issued a statement calling the bill “the most transformative military justice reform in our nation’s history, and a critical first step to ending the sexual assault crisis that has plagued the military for decades.”
The final bill requires the Pentagon to create an independent prosecutorial office for each service that will have specially trained officials — not military commanders without legal expertise — handle some serious crimes such as rape, sexual assault, murder, manslaughter and kidnapping.
However, the military justice reforms were weakened in negotiations as a compromise was struck on the bill. The final version did not go as far as pushed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who advocated for moving prosecution decisions for all serious crimes out of the traditional military chain of command. Gillibrand, who for years has been one of Congress’ most ardent advocates for improving how the military prosecutes sexual assault and treats survivors, voted against the NDAA over that omission.
Protect Our Defenders president Don Christensen, who is also the former chief prosecutor for the Air Force, said that while the reforms are “a big win … there is much more work to be done.”
“Because commanders retain convening authority, they will still wield influence over the process by selecting court members, approving or denying immunity requests, and the hiring of expert witnesses and consultants,” Christensen said. “These commanders can also stop any prosecution simply by allowing the accused to separate from the service rather than face a court-martial. As long as this is still the case, the military justice system cannot be considered truly independent.”
A provision that would have required women to register with the Selective Service System and made them eligible for future military drafts was also dropped from the final compromise version.
Biden issued a signing statement later on Monday objecting to the NDAA’s continued restrictions on using funds to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States or certain foreign countries, and other provisions he said raise constitutional concerns.
He urged Congress to eliminate the Guantanamo provisions, which he said would hinder the executive branch’s ability to decide when and where to prosecute detainees, where to send them after their release, and tie its hands when carrying out “delicate negotiations” with foreign countries over detainee transfers. And in some cases, he said, the NDAA could make it hard to follow a court’s decision ordering the release of a detainee.
Biden also objects to provisions he said would force departments to submit to congressional committees reports containing classified information, including information that could reveal intelligence sources or military operational plans. Biden said the executive branch typically follows reporting requirements in a way that protects sensitive, classified information from being disclosed, and that “I believe the Congress shares this understanding.”
The final compromise NDAA also includes a provision prohibiting the use of open-air burn pits during overseas contingency operations, unless the secretary of defense issues a waiver. This was relaxed from the House’s original version, which would have required the president to issue an exemption.
Biden, who suspects burn pit exposure may have led to his son Beau Biden’s death, reiterated his opposition to burn pits in the signing statement. He asked that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin seek his approval before issuing any exemptions.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.