This month, the House Appropriations Committee kicked off the annual process of congressional oversight of the Pentagon by passing its bill to fund the military for fiscal 2020. While the committee signaled willingness among the Democratic caucus to support a $733 billion budget, its bill makes clear that the Pentagon’s 2020 budget request is anything but the “masterpiece” that acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan once promised.
Lawmakers expressed serious reservations about the Pentagon’s flagship plans for military transformation, in which existing weapons programs are cut to pay for investment in futuristic developmental technology. The idea that military transformation will allow the military to “do more with less” under a flat budget is unwise on own merits. It places the purchase of weaponry ahead of the development of concepts to use them, assumes unwarranted certainty about the future, discounts the risk of developmental programs and ignores the need to pay massive deferred modernization bills for aging equipment.
Additionally, transformation advocates treat Congress as an obstacle to be overcome, rather than as a partner in implementing the much more ambitious aims of the National Defense Strategy. The House appropriations defense bill is shot through with admonitions about insufficient justification documentation for weapons, underfunded programs and lack of adequate acquisition strategies. The committee’s choices make clear that lawmakers are skeptical of military transformation.
As expected, House appropriators rejected several of the Pentagon’s proposed cancellations of existing weapons. In scathing report language, the committee berated the Army for its decision to walk away from upgrades to the Chinook heavy-lift helicopter, writing that the Army’s “lack of acquisition discipline is of great concern” and directing the program to continue with full funding. The bill similarly reverses of the Navy’s decision to retire the Truman carrier, another bruited “trade-off.”
In addition to rejecting those high-profile cancellations, the committee spends billions more on existing weapons systems that the Pentagon had proposed to purchase at anemic rates. Lawmakers added 12 more F-35A fighters and eight F-15EXs, an extra 12 MQ-9 Reapers, another brigade of cannon upgrades for Stryker combat vehicles, four more V-22 helicopters, three additional P-8A submarine-hunting planes, two more E-2D Hawkeyes, four extra C-130J cargo planes, and one Ship-to-Shore Connector.
The committee also pluses up other existing modernization programs: $75 million for F-16 radars, $125 million for Humvees, $167 million for Army logistics vehicles, and support for Navy expeditionary sea bases. In short, the bill makes clear that any acquisition strategy that banks on cutting existing modernization programs is unlikely to succeed.
In addition to supporting existing programs, House appropriators also pumped the brakes on several leap-ahead developmental weapons systems and acquisition changes, such as the creation of a Space Development Agency. Notably, the bill rejected a proposed increase of $174 million for the much-hyped Strategic Capabilities Office — not the first time it’s faced congressional pushback. The committee also decreased a joint artificial intelligence account by $42 million, and canceled a new $75 million national security innovation capital fund run by the Defense Innovation Unit, an attempt to encourage dual-use technology.
The bill prevents the Army from starting two flagship developmental programs: the Future Interceptor to create a new Patriot air defense missile, and the Mobile Medium-Range Missile effort to develop a new ground-launched strike missile far beyond the range limits of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The committee also cancels an Army effort to develop pseudo-satellites for GPS redundancy, and it transfers the Army’s short-range missile defense program from the research budget to procurement while reprimanding the Army for its lack of an acquisition strategy and potential duplication in the program.
For the Air Force, the committee halves its $1 billion request for the classified flagship air superiority effort (NGAD) and decreases the service’s program to create a unified command and control system (MDC2) by $50 million. Appropriators also rejected further funding for the service’s stalled light-attack aircraft experiment and dinged the Air Force on its plan for a JSTARS replacement (ABMS).
The Navy fares no better. Appropriators shaved $200 million from its flagship transformational plan to build two large unmanned surface vessels, limiting the buy to one ship in 2020. Appropriators also cut $24 million from the Navy’s future large surface combatant studies and zeroed out $70 million for the Marine Corps’ high-profile effort to develop shore-based anti-ship missiles and the Navy’s Sea Mob unmanned teaming concept. They also denied the service’s questionable request for a third attack sub in 2020, instead pushing the procurement to 2021.
House appropriators also took a special interest in offensive hypersonic weapons programs. While the committee supported such efforts, it simultaneously expressed worry that the whiplash from neglect of hypersonic weapons to a near-obsession at the Pentagon could lead to inadequate management, duplication and stovepiping. Appropriators demanded a new quarterly “road map” to help coordinate a complex tangle of hypersonic weapons programs, and they got into weeds in several areas. The committee cut $183 million from the Navy’s hypersonic strike program and moved funding for the Alternate Re-Entry System/Warhead from centralized control to the Army.
It also canceled a new $76 million hypersonic weapon program, but replaces it with an $85 million fund for research, testing, and workforce development. Similarly, appropriators express severe concern that two Air Force hypersonic weapon prototyping programs (ARRW and HCSW) are wildly underfunded and essentially states the service lacks the commitment to see the efforts through.
The advanced capabilities pursued by transformation advocates — artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, advanced networking — will prove necessary, if not sufficient, for deterring high-end conflict with China and Russia. But financing these new capabilities by cutting existing weapons systems amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul, a choice that Congress will never make. While some trade-offs make sense, policymakers should accept that the need for new, leap-ahead weapons systems is an additional burden on the Pentagon, unable to be met through rearranging programs under a flat budget.
Rick Berger is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he tracks the defense budget and acquisition reform.