Congress should control its appetite for legacy programs when increasing defense budget

Congress should control its appetite for legacy programs when increasing defense budget
© Getty Images

In a somewhat surprising development, the Democratic-led House Armed Services Committee accepted an amendment that Rep. Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan GOP lawmakers worry vaccine mandate will impact defense supply chain Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — House lawmakers eye military pay raise next year MORE (R-Ala.), the committee’s ranking member, put forward to increase the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 defense budget by just under $25 billion. This amount represented roughly the same increase that the Senate Armed Services Committee approved by a 23-3 vote in late July. Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — House lawmakers eye military pay raise next year House lawmakers want military pay raise for enlisted troops Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Navy probe reveals disastrous ship fire response MORE (D-Wash.), the committee chairman, opposed the amendment but, with 14 Democrats joining the committee’s Republicans, he was outvoted, 42-17.

Like his Senate counterparts, both Republican and Democratic, Rogers argued that the administration’s $715 billion budget proposal insufficiently funded programs that are necessary to deter China and Russia. In fact, given the Biden White House’s determination to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, coupled with a sweeping $3.5 trillion bill to fund longstanding Democratic domestic priorities, it could be argued that $25 billion represents little more than a budgetary rounding error. 

The committee vote does not guarantee floor passage, any more than does that of the Senate committee, but with overwhelming support from House Republicans, and with most if not all of the 14 Democrats voting with them, the bill should pass the House. Should the Senate committee’s $25 billion increase likewise pass a floor vote, the conference committee will debate the bill’s details, rather than its top line.

ADVERTISEMENT

The devil is always in the details, however. It is not at all clear that the additional funds, although meant to boost America’s ability to deter its peer competitors, would do so most efficiently. It is true that the Senate and House versions both allocate additional research and development funds for emerging technologies, especially for artificial intelligence. Both also add funds for an additional Virginia class submarine; there is a consensus among analysts that submarines comprise a major element of America’s deterrent, especially in the western Pacific. Both versions also provide additional dollars for cybersecurity and various cyber-related systems.

On the other hand, both the Senate and House additions to the bill also procure many legacy programs. For example, the Senate committee added six F-35 fighter aircraft, one for the Navy and five for the Air Force, that the Department of Defense (DOD) did not request. The Senate and House committees increased funding for other legacy systems, including Army combat vehicles, another DDG-51 AEGIS destroyer, and an additional large amphibious ship — the last of these despite the Marine commandant’s clearly stated preference for other, smaller amphibious units. The House committee increases came on top of a House add-on of $2.8 billion to the Pentagon’s request; of this amount, nearly $1 billion was added for F-18 aircraft that DOD did not ask for, as well as $1.3 billion for 12 F-15EX aircraft that likewise were not in the DOD budget proposal. 

Both committee versions also provide nearly an additional $1 billion to address virtually all the unfunded budget requests that the combatant commanders issued. Yet, given the nature of their tasks, the “CoComs,” as they are called, of necessity focus on immediate needs. Yet China and Russia pose longer-term threats that constitute a very different set of funding requirements.

It is well understood that Congress always grants priority to legacy programs that provide jobs for members’ constituents. Nevertheless, if the legislative branch is to add money to the administration’s proposals — which themselves are chock-full of legacy systems — and then adds even more legacy systems as it reorients the DOD proposal, it at least should focus the additional funds beyond the department’s topline for breakthrough capabilities that would ensure America’s long-term military dominance. 

In contrast to the armed services committees’ votes, the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee approved a $706 billion budget, which, when combined with the Military Construction Subcommittee’s approval of nearly $11 billion, totaled approximately $717 billion, only slightly above the DOD proposal. The Senate appropriators have yet to finalize their defense budget totals; until then, and the subsequent conference committee’s decisions, the degree to which any portion of the House and Senate armed services committees’ increases will hold remains unclear. 

Moreover, not all proposed cutting-edge programs, even if they were fully funded, will come to fruition. A conflict in 2034 is unlikely to reflect the content of the recently published novel by that name. Nor will the military successfully field many of the programs that Christopher Brose identifies in his powerful book, “The Kill Chain.” Nevertheless, if Congress is serious about deterring threats from what have come to be known as “peer competitors,” it should reconsider its propensity for adding legacy programs. 

Only by allocating additional funding for still more cutting-edge efforts, some of which indeed will succeed, will the United States be able to maintain military superiority over China, Russia or any other threat in the decades to come.

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.