National Defense Authorization Act Gives Us a Warmer Coat of Arms

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS July 24, 2017

During the summer of 1885, British Lt. Gen. Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts, exchanged messages with Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury on the question of where to draw the primary line of defense in Afghanistan. Over 130 years later, the President of the United States and his military commanders are discussing the same issue. But the relevance of the Salisbury-Roberts correspondence goes beyond the Afghan issue. The central point Lord Roberts made was that he did not have enough troops to defend the Indian frontier out to Heret, even though loss of that province would open "a serious menace." He argued for a deployment only as far as Kandahar with a rail connection to India. He argued that "a British army at Kandahar would check any onward Russian movement." A reminder that Afghanistan's main value is as a passage or base for larger threats; one of those geographical spots that has often been a pivot point in history.

Five years earlier, Roberts had led a field force of 10,000 men (mostly "Indian" troops including Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Gurkhas) to put down a larger force of Afghan rebels who were besieging Kandahar. His victory won him praise in Parliament, honors and a cash reward (in those days, great popularity attended battlefield success). Robert's military career started in the Crimea War, another strategic spot on the map which is still in contention today. Lord Salisbury thus had reason to trust the man who would in a few months become commander of all forces in India. But the Prime Minister also lamented the decision since it was based on a lack of resources. He wrote to Roberts, "We cannot reconcile ourselves to the truth that if we will not provide cloth enough for the coat we want, we must cut down our coat to the cloth we have got." The enduring problem, of course, is the coat does not determine the weather. The cold blast of world events will come whether one is prepared or not.

American troops have often felt the chill in recent decades, even when storms were manifest, as during parts of the Cold War. And even when wars were in progress during both the Bush and Obama administrations. Though the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq were small compared to past "limited wars" like Korea and Vietnam, soldiers had to serve multiple deployments as force levels proved inadequate even when supplemented by National Guard units and military contractors. And despite the heavy reliance on airpower, USAF Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, Jr. told the U.S. House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces on June7, "In a world of increasing threats, ever improving adversaries, and a persistent war against violence extremism, there is a grater discrepancy that ever between commitments and the resources necessary to provide unmatched Global Vigilance, Global Reach and Global Power. We are supporting Combatant Commander Requirements in response to growing challenges from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran." The Navy has suffered as well, having lost over half its strength since the peak of the buildup implemented by President Ronald Reagan thirty years ago.

Given the increase in national wealth and population since the Reagan era, there is no reason for the United States to be weaker today than a generation ago. Yet, between 2010 and 2015, defense spending was cut by 22 percent in constant dollars while our forces were in combat and our adversaries were advancing!

There is hope the problem is being addressed. The U.S. House voted in a large, bipartisan majority, 344-81, to pass the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018 on July 14. The bill was passed in the Armed services Committee 60-1. The NDAA calls for $621.5 billion in the base budget and $75 billion for the overseas contingency fund to support combat operations in the Middle East and elsewhere. This is a total of $28.5 billion more than the Trump administration requested. It adds $6 billion to the shipbuilding budget, a step towards the 350-ship fleet the Navy needs to cover its global beat (we currently have only 275). The Army will grow by 10,000 soldiers, with another 7,000 in the National Guard and Reserves. And there is more money to upgrade armored brigades, the spearhead in any major land battle, but a force that has suffered cuts in modernization spending for a decade.

The most important news to emerge from the NDAA legislative process is the amount of bipartisanship shown behind the mission to increase the nation's military strength. A remarkable outcome given the constant media barrage highlighting partisan "resistance' to getting anything done in Congress. The large majority by which the final bill was passed was magnificent; 117 Democrats joined 227 Republicans, presenting a clear majority within both parties. This unity was also expressed on several amendments, albeit not to the same extent. Rep. Earl Blumenauer's (D-OR) amendment to limit spending on a new nuclear cruise missile was defeated 254-169 with 22 Democrats voting against the limitation. In might be mentioned that Blumenauer also thinks that because the U.S. has more aircraft carriers than any other country, we can afford to scuttle some of them; as if superiority is a bad thing. To protect his own political base, however, on his Congressional website he is "proud to support the 142nd Fighter Wing and 125th Special Tactics Squadron of the Oregon Air National Guard" which are based ion his Portland district.

Rep. Blumenauer's concept of treating the military merely as a special interest group was also expressed by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI). His amendment would have required any increase in defense spending be matched by increases in non-defense spending. HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-RX) argued that ddefense spending should not be "Tied to a domestic political agenda...my point is, all of those things need to stand on their own merits and defense needs to stand on its own merits...It is absolutely wrong to say we will only support these military folks if we get what we want on the domestic side." Rep. Pocan's amendment was voted down 245-179, with 12 Democrats voting with the majority.

The prime example of treating national security as just another special interest was the 2011 Budget Control Act which was meant to constrain Federal spending by placing across the board limits. No merits were to apply. Worse, defense was to bear half the fiscal burden. Yet, even with increased allocations, the NDAA program will amount to less than 20 percent of an aggregate budget of around $4 trillion. This asymmetrical assault on the armed services was pushed by President Barack Obama and agreed to by then House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). This should have been reason enough to remove Boehner from office. Now that both principles in the horrid BCA have retired, it is time to accord national security the priority it deserves as the core duty of government. The NDAA budget is $72 billion above the BCA cap, so the cap must be removed.

Rep. Jared Polis's (D-CO) amendment to actually cut defense spending was rejected 351-73, with 120 Democrats opposed. So there is some basis for optimism that a bipartisan coalition can be rallied for the purposes of making the American armed forces great again and keeping the United States the preeminent world power. With a new poll conducted by NBC/Survey Monkey indicating that 66 percent of Americans worry about a major war breaking out within the next four years, there should be political support for a stronger military to deter hostilities or prevail if a crisis boils over. The House passage of the NDAA is a first step in the right direction, but there is a long trek ahead to get where we need to be; a secure future in a turbulent world.  

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.


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