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Congress’ Spending Freeze Puts a Deep Chill On US Military Modernization

B-2 Bomber
B-2 Bomber. Image Credit: US Air Force.

Spend a few minutes on Capitol Hill these days and it is clear inter-party relations are at a new low. Even congressional staffers are feeling the chill as relations worsen. This is one of many reasons, unfortunately, why the odds of a full-year government spending freeze are growing by the day. Yet Pentagon leaders are nowhere to be found in sounding the alarm. Given the hundreds of misaligned programs, millions in wasted dollars, training time that cannot be recovered, and further self-imposed technology delays vis-à-vis China, military leaders simply cannot afford to be silent now.

It seems both branches of government need a reminder of the consequences that stem from such mismanagement. While the Defense Department has grown used to managing the inefficiencies that are caused by continuing resolutions (CRs), this does not mean they are inconsequential. It only means the Pentagon has figured out how to limp along using the equivalent of contracting and budgeting duct tape.

In the event of a CR, the Defense Department can submit anomaly requests that change the duration, amount, or purpose for which funds are used within certain appropriation accounts. However, it is the prerogative of Congress to approve such anomalies. They rarely do so. It is past time to send up flares.

Research from the RAND Corporation in 2019 indicated that only 3 percent of the 388 potential anomaly requests prepared by Pentagon staff to potentially send to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and then Congress between FY 2013 and FY 2017 ever appeared in legislation.

A Government Accountability Office report tracked how many anomalies the Pentagon requested of the White House, compared to how many were enacted by Congress. In FY 2017—one of the longest stints the military operated under a continuing resolution in the past decade—347 anomalies were requested but just five were allowed.

As the next continuing resolution expires in mid-February, the Air Force released a statement outlining how yet another lock on spending will keep new programs from kicking off, delay production increases, stymie military construction, and slow spending on facilities maintenance. The Navy is also belatedly weighing in on fiscal year disruptions—warning House and Senate appropriators against their proposed cuts to hypersonic weapons, F-35 fighter jet spending, and delaying aircraft carrier maintenance.

The White House fact sheet details how late appropriations “adversely impact hypersonic weapons development and delay over 114 new military construction project this fiscal year.” The administration emphasized that FY 2022 appropriations at the President’s proposed budget levels would invest $13 billion more in research and development over 2021 funding levels to compete with China—now ranked second in the world in R&D spending.

This is to say nothing of the money that would be left on the table above the president’s request that Congress has added for the military, to the tune of $25 billion.

The Pentagon should have planned for this months ago, but in lieu of inventing time travel, there are a couple of practical steps that leaders can take.

Start explaining the consequences of a long CR in detail and much more frequently. At a conference in 2017, then-Pentagon Comptroller and Chief Financial Officer David Norquist expounded that spending freezes have “administrative costs that are wasteful and readiness and operational costs that are unrecoverable.” The same year, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis wrote in a letter to the leaders of the armed services committees that “longer term CRs impact the readiness of our forces and their equipment at a time when security threats are extraordinarily high. The longer the CR, the greater the consequences for our force.” Service chiefs and other acquisition leaders in the Defense Department need to explain how continuing resolutions are impacting their priorities and ability to compete with China in relevant public engagements, testimony, and behind the scenes in private discussions.

Submit a record-long anomaly list to the White House and share it with Congress. Pentagon program managers and leaders need to begin drafting their list of anomaly requests immediately as time and volume are of the essence. If only three percent of potential anomaly requests are likely to run the approval gauntlet between the Defense Department, OMB, and Congress, then the volume is key—there are plenty of efforts that merit attention, from new starts to military construction efforts to increase production plans.

Determine how to help essential contractors and manufacturers. The GAO report from earlier this year outlines various case studies for how the services may try to buy much of their planned programs as possible under a CR. For example, the Marine Corps bought 30 of 56 planned Amphibious Combat Vehicles at the start of FY 2020 under a CR, and then ordered the 26 remaining vehicles after the freeze was ended by enactment of regular appropriations. It’s time to start identifying those types of fixes and communicating to the defense industrial base partners where such solutions will not be possible.

Congress might figure out how to handle Build Back Better, the debt ceiling, regular appropriations, and the annual defense policy bill by the time the next continuing resolution expires—most likely around mid-February 2022. But the Defense Department should not be using such optimistic assumptions to inform contingency budget planning. They should especially not hope for the best when inflation is slowly choking the Pentagon’s spending plans for this year and next already.

Some in Washington are suggesting that a continuing resolution that locks in defense spending at Trump presidency-levels is acceptable. But that’s a strange way of defining victory when the Senate and House defense policy bills are poised to deliver a three percent real increase to the defense budget. A rain delay for a game is not the same thing as winning the game. It is time to sound the alarm about all the damage a yearlong spending freeze does to the U.S. military before it becomes reality.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. You can follow her on Twitter: @MEaglen.

More about Mackenzie Eaglen: While working at AEI, Ms. Eaglen served as a staff member on the National Defense Strategy Commission, a congressionally mandated bipartisan review group whose final report in November 2018, “Providing for the Common Defense,” included assessments and recommendations for the administration. Earlier, Ms. Eaglen served as a staff member on the 2014 congressionally mandated National Defense Panel, established to assess US defense interests and strategic objectives, and in 2010 on the congressionally mandated bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, which evaluated the Pentagon’s defense strategy. She is also one of the 12-member US Army War College Board of Visitors, which offers advice about program objectives and effectiveness.

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness. She is also a regular guest lecturer at universities, a member of the board of advisers of the Alexander Hamilton Society, and a member of the steering committee of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security.