Let’s Keep the NDAA Focused on Defense

August 01, 2020
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Our military services have made progress in recouping readiness. But it hasn’t been easy – and the job isn’t finished.

Over the past few years, observers and practitioners of military affairs have noted the extraordinary challenges facing the U.S. military as a consequence of the damage done to it by the Budget Control Act of 2011, sustained counter-insurgency operations since 9-11, and the increasingly lethal and complex security environment posed by the rise of very capable state and non-state competitors. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis was so shocked by the condition of the military when he took charge of the Department in 2017 that he made regaining combat readiness and lethality his top priority.

Things are trending in the right direction again, but there is more work to be done when it comes to modernizing key items of equipment, as well as re-growing a military widely believed to be too small for the tasks given it. Key documents such as the National Defense Strategy, the work of the Commission charged to assess the NDS, and numerous commentators have noted the increased challenges that come with a return to “great power competition” and the impressive investments other countries are making in advanced capabilities.

With this in mind, the recent press release from the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee seems very odd.

The U.S. has a military to be able to defend the nation and its citizens and interests abroad and to instill confidence in allies and fear in potential enemies. The National Defense Authorization Act is Congress’s annual mechanism to authorize funding for those capabilities. The versions currently being worked by the House and Senate for FY 2021 are filled with the expected things to address the posture, readiness, and capabilities of military forces.

But words mean a lot, and the emphasis placed on the NDAA by key leaders says much about focus and priority. The formal statement by the HASC Chairman summarizing what he believes are the most important achievements in the House version of the 2021 NDAA seems to imply that warfighting capabilities and the U.S. military's status to fulfill its primary function are rather far down the list. 

Consider the top 10 items emphasized by the Chairman:

  1. address the COVID-19 pandemic and systematic racism
  2. promote diversity and inclusion and address systemic racism in our military institutions
  3. change the names of all military bases named for individuals who served in the Confederacy and prohibit the public display of the Confederate flag
  4. establish a Chief Diversity Officer within the DoD and each of the services, establish a Military Diversity Leadership Commission, and require a strategy to increase diversity within the DoD to be representative of the U.S. population
  5. dictate the uniforms of federal law enforcement officers
  6. establish a $1 billion Pandemic Preparedness and Resilience National Security Fund
  7. combat climate change and protect the environment
  8. designate millions of acres of public lands as wilderness or potential wilderness areas to improve biodiversity, safeguard water quality, and protect wildlife habitat
  9. prohibit new live nuclear testing
  10. prohibit the DoD from excluding any civilian employee from collective bargaining rights

While mention is made (far down the list at number #15) of a 3 percent pay increase for military personnel and pay-equity for civilian DOD employees, there is curiously no mention anywhere on his list of equipment modernization, improving force lethality, updating critical military infrastructure, the military’s force posture, its operational readiness or inventory of munitions, R&D efforts for emerging technologies of military relevance, or initiatives to strengthen the ability of allies to contribute to common security efforts.

Of course, issues like racial equality, sound environmental stewardship, and protections against pandemic disease are important. No reasonable person would dispute that. But one might hope that leaders in Congress, responsible for ensuring our military’s preparedness, would prioritize matters relating to warfighting.

The National Defense Authorization Act should first and foremost be about ensuring our military is able to do what we expect it to do. Announcements about the NDAA should likewise convey to the American people that Congress is just as focused on that fact and not distracted by matters that, while important, haven’t much to do with warfighting.

Dakota L. Wood is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense and editor of the think tank’s annual Index of U.S. Military Strength.

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