There will be many defense policy fights waged at least through September in the politically divided U.S. Congress, but so far lawmakers have found one major point of agreement: pretending tens of billions of dollars in “sequestration” cuts do not exist.
Halfway through writing, or “marking up,” their annual defense authorization and appropriations bills for national security-related matters from the Pentagon to the National Nuclear Security Administration, Republican and Democratic legislators have disagreed vehemently on several issues, including further cuts to the nuclear arsenal and expanding missile defenses. But every bill marked up so far—from the House defense authorization measure to the House Appropriations Committee's defense and nuclear-weapons spending bills and the Senate Armed Services Committee's authorization draft—shares the delusion that the 2011 Budget Control Act and its automatic, widespread sequestration cutbacks did not occur in March. Lawmakers also appear to be willfully obtuse to the fact that “Sequestration-Part 2” is all-but-sure to occur in 2014.
The result is another year of significant uncertainty for Pentagon planners, the industrial base and friends and foes alike of the U.S. And the fatigue from a lack of strategic clarity on spending and priorities is starting to hit home in a way that the so-called fiscal cliff debate at the start of 2013 skirted.
“Most of us inside the business right now are kind of tired of talking about this,” says the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh. “Let's just figure out where we're going and get moving. We know it will be different than where we thought we were going, so let's just get headed in that direction.”
Nonetheless, Congress is set to spend the summer and early fall focusing on political and cultural issues like sexual assault and closing the Guantanamo prison rather than on the armed services' weapons programs or plans. To be sure, there are several legislative mandates lawmakers are attempting to push through—e.g., the House bill looks to restore funding for the ArmyUH-72 light utility helicopter while appropriators hope to force the addition of eight MQ–9 UAVs to the administration's request to underpin the production line—but so far competing House and Senate bills are mostly devoid of language dramatically affecting weapons, unlike in the early years of the Obama administration when dozens of Major Defense Acquisition Programs were targeted for cancellation or reform.
Still, related policy battles have emerged, or more accurately reemerged, as many provisions introduced this month are echoes of prior attempts. For instance, Republicans in the House, who control that chamber, want to force the administration to speed up establishment of an East Coast base of Ground-Based Interceptors, including more than $100 million to start buying them. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and most other Democrats in both chambers oppose it, so the two sides will argue over it in a House-Senate conference committee. A similar fight last year resulted in a compromise for an environmental impact study, going on now.
House Republicans also want to curb administration efforts to reduce the nuclear arsenal beyond the 1,550 deployed, strategic-warhead-cap mandate coming under the New Start treaty with Russia. The renewed battle flares as President Barack Obama last week said he will move to cut deployed U.S. strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third and seek further negotiated cuts with Russia. While the nuclear triad of submarine- and land-based missiles and bombers is expected to remain intact, Republicans and nuclear proponents in Washington have feared the administration wants to cut operational warheads to around 1,000.
By comparison, legislators across Capitol Hill seem to be rallying in opposition to the U.S. working with Russia's defense export company, Rosonboronexport, especially in light of disputes between Washington and Moscow over Syria. While the latest legislation would not undo an active Pentagon purchase of more than 30Mi-17s for Afghan forces, it could impede future acquisitions.
But even universal congressional agreement there would mean little if it does not become law or if U.S. defense planning remains in turmoil over sequestration, which will occur again later this year if Congress can muster only a continuing resolution of 2013 appropriations, as expected, instead of agreeing on fresh appropriations.
“Whatever we do here today will wind up being reduced by a significant amount at some point over the course of the next six months as we get together and finally do our budget and our appropriations bills, one way or the other,” says leading House Armed Services Democrat Adam Smith (Wash.). “We assume a number somewhere in the $40-to-50-billion range above what ultimately is going to be spent by. What are the choices we are going to make? None of them are good, but I think continuing to duck them doesn't service the Department of Defense.”