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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Congress Weakens the U.S. Military with Late Defense Spending Bills

Aircraft Carrier. Image Credit: U.S. Navy
American Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman is pictured during flying operations in the company of HMS Somerset in the Mediterranean. HMS Somerset was perforing anti-submarine duties for the immense vessel at the the time.

Ships are power projection platforms that come in handy when House speakers travel to Asia over Beijing’s objections. According to USNI, three U.S. Navy “capital ships and their escorts are operating in the Western Pacific near Taiwan,” ahead of a “Western Pacific visit from U.S. House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to the region.” 

Specifically, the article notes that “aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and big deck amphibious ships USS America (LHA-6) and USS Tripoli (LHA-7), with Marine F-35B Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters embarked, are operating in the vicinity of Taiwan.”

Since ships take years to build, this visible display of credible and timely American combat power is another reminder of why it matters to have defense bills enacted on time. 

The defense policy bill is one of the few pieces of legislation that moves through Congress every year garnering large bipartisan majorities of support. But the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the fiscal year that starts in just 9 weeks is still awaiting floor time in the U.S. Senate. 

Unfortunately for the troops, it might be a while.

The House passed its version several weeks ago, and with the clock ticking it is essential the Senate acts with urgency to advance the bill. With the Senate calendar occupied by Schumer-Manchin budget reconciliation, the PACT Act, NATO accessions, and raising the debt ceiling, any delay means the precious two weeks of September session time before heading home before the midterms could be a squeeze for those in uniform and push the bill to the winter. 

What does the U.S. military lose or see needlessly delayed without an on-time policy bill? 

Rebuilding of critical munitions stockpiles

Since the start of the war, the Pentagon has sent around 7,000 Javelin missiles to aid Ukrainian military forces in defending against Russian tanks, and around 1,400 Stinger missiles. That is one-third and one-quarter of America’s respective munitions stockpiles. The 2023 NDAA authorizes funding for more than $2.7 billion in additional munitions production and industrial capacity expansion. It also authorizes the development of the new Stinger, which the White House left out of its budget request and has not been in production since 2005. Further delayed production of needed weapons means diminishing preparedness for U.S. combat capability, less aid for partners and allies since the U.S. cannot dip below minimum stockpile levels, and reduced conventional deterrence. 

Enhanced combat capabilities

Across the armed forces, the President’s FY 2023 budget request sliced away at combat-capable systems and conventional U.S. military strength, from people to planes. Both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House NDAAs reversed these trends by authorizing the additional procurement of equipment above the president’s request and more in line with strategic requirements. This includes authorizing seven additional F-35 fighter jets, 22 additional Abrams tanks, and eight battleforce ships, including destroyers, submarines, and an additional frigate. The bill further authorizes multi-year contracts for over 33 additional and overdue ships. 

U.S. naval production capacity is buckling under trends plaguing American industry, and attempts to paper the cracks are, themselves … cracking. What ship builders need are contracts and guaranteed funding streams to predict workload and hire accordingly. And what the U.S. Navy needs is a substantially larger fleet. Neither can wait. 

Indo-Pacific policies to deter China

The NDAA not only authorizes funding levels, it also sets policies and strategic priorities as well as provides crucial oversight for the defense department. As tensions in the Indo-Pacific continue to rise and China’s military force continues to pace (and outpace) U.S. defense production and modernization, the Armed Services Committees’ work to strengthen U.S. military relations and power in the region cannot slow. 

The current bill would enhance Guam’s missile defenses, and secure basing and munitions safety on the island. It would also require a study from U.S. Indo-Pacific Command outlining the operational requirements needed for a 6-plus month conflict, the gaps in the current force layout, and its cost. This will be important for guiding force posture designs and investments in the coming fiscal year. For U.S. allies and partners, Taiwan would be included in the Rim of the Pacific exercises – the world’s largest international maritime warfare training exercise – and the Pentagon would be required to engage with India’s Ministry of Defense to broaden cooperation on innovation, logistics, and readiness. With tensions high in the region, delaying ally cooperation and our military readiness for no reason invites worse outcomes. 

Offsetting the impacts of inflation

It is old news that inflation is dramatically decreasing the military’s purchasing power, but the effects continue to be as real and damaging as ever – especially for military troops and their families. Smartly, the Senate Armed Services committee led an effort to counter defense inflation – which historically outpaces national inflation by two-to-eight points, depending on the account – by authorizing over $21 billion in additional funds specifically to address the consequences. Additionally, both the House and Senate authorized a 4.6 percent pay raise for military service members after only a 2.7 percent raise this year while inflation was at 6 percent and rising. Today, at over 8.5-9+ percent inflation on nearly any scale, program managers are unable to field systems and military families are struggling. Passage of the defense policy bill sets the stage for funds needed now.

A tardy defense authorization bill means an absence of U.S. military strength, a dearth of needed oversight, and needlessly wasted time and money while waiting. From restocking supplies and providing additional aid to allies and partners, to developing operational plans in Asia, to fielding needed equipment at scale, to relieving economic pressures across the armed forces, crucial changes are in the balance and delayed with each day the NDAA sits without action in the U.S. Senate. The Department of Defense simply cannot afford another cycle of delayed authorizations and appropriations. The Senate must pass the bill as soon as possible so conferencing may begin and this needed legislation can head to the President’s desk on time.

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. She is a 1945 Contributing Editor. 

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.