Defense Bill Shows Impediments to Fiscal Restraint

Republican members of Congress have long considered security spending to be a sacred cow. The refrain has been a familiar one: Any cuts to the Department of Defense would jeopardize national security. The fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 12, continues this trend. It blows past the president’s budget request, throwing good money after bad into several worsening procurement programs.

The bill provides $700 billion in spending for DOD, $26.1 billion more than Trump’s budget request. Passage of the NDAA also opens the door for the House and Senate appropriations committees to ignore the restraints imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 for both defense and non-defense discretionary spending.

The cost overruns in the NDAA are partially due to increased funding for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. The bill provides for 90 JSFs, an increase of $2.6 billion and 20 aircraft above the administration’s request. Providing for additional JSFs makes little sense. In development for almost 16 years and six years behind schedule, the program is approximately $170 billion over budget and has encountered an abundance of persistent issues. An April 2015 Government Accountability Office report noted that the lifetime operation and maintenance costs of the most expensive weapon system in history will total approximately $1 trillion.

Supplementary JSFs will add further costs to the program. Since it is still under development, the Pentagon will have to install any alterations made to the design of the planes already purchased, raising their costs significantly.

In a Feb. 16 House Tactical Air and Land Forces Armed Services Subcommittee hearing on the F-35, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris Jr. warned of the dangers of increasing the rate at which JSFs are purchased, beyond those already scheduled in “Block 4,” the latest round of procurement. According to Harris, “Accelerating the procurement rate prior to the development of Block 4 would add overall cost to the program.”

In fact, the Air Force has been aware of this problem for years. Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum on July 24, 2015, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James stated, “The biggest lesson I have learned from the F-35 is never again should we be flying an aircraft while we’re building it.” Unfortunately, members of Congress have yet again failed to heed this warning.

The bill also provides $65.8 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations account. Created in 2001 to fund the country’s military engagements abroad, the OCO account was intended to be a one-time emergency supplemental. However, over the past seven years, members of Congress and the executive branch have utilized the OCO to bypass the spending limits imposed by the Budget Control Act. Much of the spending contained in the account in recent years has been used for nonemergency-related spending that could easily be incorporated into the regular budget. In fact, in FY 2017 approximately half of the OCO budget-funded programs and activities once appeared in the base budget.

Other wasteful expenditures in the NDAA include $1.5 billion for Littoral Combat Ships, which is $900 million and two LCSs more than the administration’s request. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) has called LCS spending “an unfortunate and classic example” of wasteful defense procurement. While the costs and mechanical issues with the LCS continue to multiply, inherent design flaws have impeded the ship’s effectiveness.

On Aug. 26, 2010, Adm. Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referred to the national debt as the “single-biggest threat to our national security.” Members of Congress have routinely failed to take this message to heart. The FY 2018 NDAA shows yet again that Republicans, for all their bluster on fiscal conservatism, still have a blind spot when it comes to defense spending.

Sean Kennedy is director of research for Citizens Against Government Waste.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult