Congress should reconsider Austin’s request to fund ‘critical munitions’

Lloyd Austin
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon on July 20, 2022.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Senate appropriators shot down a Department of Defense (DOD) fiscal year 2023 budget request to create a $500 million Critical Munitions Acquisition Fund. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had argued that the fund would give the DOD flexibility to increase weapons production to assist Ukraine and to respond to any urgent needs arising from future crises. 

In response, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s report for FY 2023 stated that “the Critical Munitions Acquisition Fund is narrowly focused on procurement of small amounts of certain munitions to be decided in the year of execution. By design, this approach does not address the broader challenges of strategic investment and management of the DIB [defense industrial base] and the supply chain.”

Appropriators, and especially many of their staffers, long have been suspicious of any new fund that would afford the DOD “flexibility” without detailed congressional oversight. Their opposition harks back three decades, when in 1989 the Air Force informed Congress that it planned to apply $1 billion from so-called “M accounts” to correct problems with the B-1 bomber’s avionics systems. The Air Force request for funds from these accounts came as a surprise to many legislators who had not been aware of the size of these accounts. Indeed, some lawmakers were not even aware of their existence.

The M accounts held expired budget authority funds whose balances could be paid out as long as that authority had not yet expired. Since budget authority generally did not expire after one year, these accounts were able to hold billions of dollars, which then could be applied as add-ons to ongoing programs without the need for additional appropriations. In effect, these accounts enabled the DOD to increase funding for its programs without having to receive additional permission from the Congress.

Not surprisingly, Congress acted quickly to terminate the M accounts, which it viewed as nothing more than “slush funds” that enabled the DOD to expend money irresponsibly with no real legislative oversight. The Fiscal Year 1990 Defense Authorization Act ordered that all such accounts be closed by September 1993. Ever since, members of Congress — and especially the appropriators — have been chary of approving any new open-ended accounts or funds whose expenditures might evade legislative scrutiny. 

While the FY 2023 defense appropriations report referred to the need for a broader approach to revitalizing the defense industrial base, there can be little doubt that Secretary Austin’s use of the term “flexibility” was a red flag for appropriators who worried that the new fund would not be subject to the usual level of legislative oversight.

Legislators no doubt are correct that the Critical Munitions Acquisition Fund falls short of the need to address those “broader challenges of strategic investment and management” of the defense industrial base. Yet there is also much merit in the DOD proposal for a fund that would immediately spur the industrial base to produce munitions that either would be sent directly to Kyiv to meet urgent Ukrainian needs or would replace those already transferred to Ukraine. 

Given conditions on the battlefield, those needs could change far more quickly than the often cumbersome and frequently time-consuming process of obtaining legislative approval for DOD reprogramming requests would allow. Moreover, with the likelihood that the congressionally approved FY 2023 appropriation will exceed $800 billion, a $500 million fund simply does not constitute a significant sum relative to the benefits it could afford Ukraine.

There is a widespread consensus that the DOD planning, programming, budgeting and execution system is seriously outdated and in urgent need of reform. To that end, Congress has authorized the creation of a commission to propose changes to the system. One of those changes could involve recognizing that the system is simply too slow and inflexible to meet urgent demands that might arise from an unanticipated crisis or conflict such as the war in Ukraine. 

The commission will not report its findings and recommendations for some time, however, and in the meantime, the need for Washington to meet Kyiv’s crucial munitions requirements is unlikely to diminish. For that reason alone, Congress should reconsider and approve Austin’s request for a critical munitions fund. After all, it could terminate the fund in the future, as it once closed the M accounts nearly 30 years ago.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Critical Munitions Acquisition Fund Defense spending Lloyd Austin Ukraine war weapons

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