How will the Senate defense bill impact future Pentagon agenda?

How will the Senate defense bill impact future Pentagon agenda?
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This week, the Senate began consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2019. The House has already passed its defense policy bill, and the two chambers will conference later this summer. While a budget deal struck previously meant that the bicameral toplines were virtually identical, there are still differences impacting the Defense Department that must be reconciled. Five issues stand out.

Doubling down on research and development

The Senate builds on the Pentagon’s request emphasizing research and development to funnel an additional $1 billion to this priority. Noteworthy investments run the gamut from the far from unimaginable to the far out, including an additional $100 million for a hypersonic conventional strike weapon amid reports that Russia has deployed its first equivalent system, $80 million for a low cost attritable aircraft prototype, $50 million for vertical launch cells on amphibious warships, and a redirection of Army funds from a light tank to a next generation combat vehicle prototype.

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These initiatives would improve the qualitative edge of American forces in the long term, at the expense of the military’s size and capacity in the near term. Beyond new research projects, the Senate would compel the Pentagon to take immediate action to remedy the military’s eroding technological dominance. Within 90 days, the intelligence community is required to submit a classified report on the capabilities of American adversaries in the fields of hypersonics, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and directed energy weapons.

This would be corroborated by outside reports on activities like electronic warfare compiled by the JASON advisory group, a “rent a genius” board of scientists and technicians advising the government. To improve the Defense Department’s ability to liaise with the technology industry, the bill also creates a new nonprofit entity to encourage private investment in national security technologies.

Requiring a roles and missions report

Given the lack of implementing guidance accompanying the Pentagon’s new strategy, the Senate demands the most thorough review of the military in decades. The bill rightly recognizes that the Pentagon’s 2019 budget does not fully resource its national defense strategy. In response, the services are asked to evaluate their most fundamental missions and organizational precepts to determine what activities align or not.

The Marines are particularly impacted, with the report questioning the continued utility of amphibious assaults and suggesting the corps reorient itself toward counterinsurgency and stability operations. These will be tough questions to address as the Pentagon toes the line between meaningful reform and overreach, but in the end will allow the services to prioritize certain missions and stop doing others.

Basing American troops in Poland permanently

The Senate bill commissions an unclassified study on the feasibility and desirability of permanently stationing an Army brigade combat team in Poland. This is in response to a proposal from the Polish government to partially fund the construction of facilities to house a unit of up to division strength. This idea carries the risk of upsetting Russia or NATO allies, but is an unparalleled opportunity to magnify regional deterrence and bolster training opportunities with partner nations.

This request goes beyond a statement of policy in the House version, which had requested more permanently stationed support troops and an Army combat aviation brigade in Europe, but did not include anything about increasing the number of infantry or armored brigade combat teams, or stationing these troops into eastern Europe. Stationing an aviation brigade and a brigade combat team in Poland would create a potent combined arms deterrent.

Exercising greater oversight of Pentagon accounting

The Senate has proposed a battery of provisions to increase the transparency and coherency of the defense budget. First is a mandate to transfer the Air Force’s “nonblue” spending out of its budget. This money passes through the Air Force but is intended for other organizations, principally intelligence agencies. By eliminating this onerous, Congress would level the fiscal playing field between the three services.

While the House’s proposed reforms to the Pentagon’s “fourth estate” have received the spotlight, the Senate would create useful budgetary tools for accountability. This includes the requirement that the “OP-5” justification books for defense-wide entities complete the same five-year planning the services produce.

This would allow Congress greater insight into projected spending needs and improve strategic planning at the Pentagon. There is also a report required on what money is moving from the overseas contingency operations account to base spending, and the justifications for those transfers. As the Pentagon looks to conduct counterterrorism more efficiently, this is overdue sunshine on a  pot of money long abused.

Revamping the human resources system at Pentagon

Updating the military’s talent management policies for today’s highly mobile, diverse, older, married and better educated workforce has been a tenuous effort full of fits and starts over the past decade. The last administration’s attempt at a dramatic overhaul, known as Force of the Future, ultimately failed for bureaucratic and legislative reasons.

But it is past time for Congress to begin bite-sized reform of military recruiting and retention, or risk aggravating critical shortfalls like fighter pilots and cyber warriors. The Senate bill begins this effort by granting service credit for select private sector experience, changes to officer promotion boards and eligibility requirements, and updating retirement rules. The goal is to start small and build up in the coming years to an effort as bold and ambitious as Force of the Future.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. She is a former congressional staffer and fellow with the U.S. Department of Defense.