Fights Over Combat Goggles, Ships and Money Lead Defense Debates
- Wrangling over debt limit could complicate Pentagon funding
- Congressional defense panels to start writing bills this month
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A harsh reality is unfolding in Washington: unless some miracle negotiation in Congress takes place, Pentagon spending — alongside the rest of the government — will be set on autopilot, or stopgap funding. But if recent history is a guide, there will be bipartisan pressure for at least some boost to defense funding next year.
The debate on whether to maintain or add to military spending will be fierce following last week’s passage in the Republican-led House of a measure that would increase the debt ceiling by $1.5 trillion to stave off a US payments default until no later than March 31, 2024.
The plan calls for spending $131 billion less than current levels in the appropriations bills that will be written in the coming months. While the GOP bill wouldn’t specifically shield defense spending, GOP hawks have said that they wouldn’t cut funding for the Pentagon and would seek to provide more than the $842 billion the administration requested for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
That would mean more drastic cuts in domestic programs to stay within spending caps — a move that the Democratic-majority Senate and White House would oppose, eventually leading to an impasse over spending and continuing resolutions to start fiscal 2024.
“Just like Thelma and Louise, it is clear this approach is heading national security to a very steep cliff into a possibly disastrous crash,” said retired Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, a former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The silver lining is that the Armed Services panels will still write and likely pass the annual defense authorization bill—a measure considered must-pass because it authorizes troops’ pay, as well as critical weapon and geo-strategic policies.
From shipbuilding to battlefield goggles and abortion policy, here are some of the flashpoints to watch during this year’s defense debate.
The Pentagon requested $842 billion for fiscal 2024—the biggest ever in nominal terms, and also one of the largest peacetime budgets when adjusted for inflation. That number is about to go up, at least when the House Armed Services Committee considers the bill at the end of May. Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said in an interview that he would boost the top line but has yet to settle on a number.
Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) indicated several lawmakers on his panel may not be satisfied with the 3.2% increase proposed in the defense budget request and may want to add to the top line, especially after service leaders and combatant commanders sent wish lists totaling about $17 billion.
Last year, when Democrats controlled both chambers, Congress agreed to exceed the Biden’s request in the authorization and appropriation agreements, a scenario that could be repeated this year.
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Pentagon budget planners proposed suspending purchases of amphibious ships in the year starting Oct. 1, a controversial move that could drive a wedge between the Navy and Marine Corps and raise ire among top lawmakers in Congress.
The Navy is pressing pause on buying vessels such as the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ships made by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. in Mississippi, the home state of Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and Trent Kelly, the new Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.
The primary function of Navy amphibious ships is to transport Marines and their weapons, equipment, and supplies to distant operating areas, and allow Marines to conduct operations ashore in those areas. The halt in purchases of the landing platform dock — or LPD — ships is likely to keep numbers of amphibious vessels below the minimum of 31 specified by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger.
“We have to have 31 at a minimum, nothing less,” Berger told the House Armed Services Committee on April 28. Navy Secretary Carlos del Toro said he hopes the pause is “as short as possible.” The Marine Corps submitted a $3.67 billion wish list to Congress that includes $1.7 billion for a San-Antonio class amphibious ship made by Huntington Ingalls.
“Thankfully, there is bipartisan agreement that we must substantially increase the shipbuilding budget,” Wicker said in a statement. “The Navy introduced uncertainty into the shipbuilding industry by excluding the LPD amphibious ship from the FY24 budget. Congress has reversed decisions like this in the past, and I certainly hope and actually am confident that we will do so again this year.”
Lawmakers aren’t ready to back the Army’s plan for the troubled Integrated Visual Augmentation System. The US Army is requesting about $168 million next fiscal year for Microsoft Corp.‘s new combat goggles as the service is trying out a new model after soldiers experienced headaches, nausea and eyestrain in field tests. It’s also seeking additional funds for the combat goggles: $98 million for procurement and $22.4 million for research and development as part of the unfunded priorities list sent to Congress.
The goggles are meant to let commanders project information onto a visor in front of a soldier’s face and incorporate features such as night vision. They are a customized version of Microsoft’s HoloLens goggles. The Army has projected spending as much as $21.9 billion on 121,500 devices, spare parts and support services over a decade if all options are exercised.
Nonetheless, an improved model of Microsoft’s goggles won’t be deployed to US Army combat troops for at least two years because the company must first demonstrate it has fixed flaws, according to the Army. If the goggle passes its tests, a version will be fielded starting in July 2025, the Army said in a statement. The latest version is slimmer and lighter and is designed “to greatly improve soldier comfort,” Microsoft said in a statement. Software improvements are also intended to result in greater reliability and reduced power demand.
“I am particularly concerned about a product that would cost over $60,000 per soldier and think that the IVAS system needs to be carefully scrutinized to ensure that soldier lethality is enhanced and that Army’s limited budget is maximized,” Rob Wittman (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, said in a statement.
Congressional defense committees, as in previous years, likely will focus on the Army’s Enhanced Night Vision Goggle-Binoculars (ENVG-B) made by L3 Harris Technologies Inc. BAE Systems Plc is also one of the contractors as some lawmakers continue to be skeptical the Army can get the IVAS program on track, and fear that by focusing on IVAS, the Army risks hurting the night-vision systems industrial base.
Lockheed Martin Corp.’s loss to Textron Inc. of the competition to replace the mainstay Black Hawk helicopter made by its Sikorsky unit isn’t all bad news for the company. Congress, and in particular the Connecticut delegation, is prepared to ensure that the Black Hawk production line stays alive and ticking. The Pentagon requested about $915.5 million for 50 Black Hawks (in different versions) in fiscal 2024.
The Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft awarded to Textron is the first program in the Army’s Future Vertical Lift project to replace both the UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache helicopters made by Boeing Co. It’s seen as a crucial test of how the service can modernize without major delays and cost overruns after some high-profile failures over the past 20 years.
The Army is likely to receive scrutiny for its Future Vertical Lift endeavors after the Government Accountability Office warned that the service risks failing to meet its goals for new helicopters — crucial for replacing Black Hawks and Apaches as well as developing unmanned aircraft — because they barely meet the threshold for credible cost estimates and fail to assess new technologies properly.
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Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) isn’t budging from his blockade of hundreds of military promotions to protest the Pentagon’s policy announced to allow leave and travel stipends for troops or their family members to seek abortion care if they’re based in states that ban the procedure.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has argued the Supreme Court’s decision to end a constitutional right to abortion puts pressure on military readiness and recruitment. The military is struggling to meet recruitment and retention goals, and some policymakers say women could be discouraged from serving if they’re based in states that ban abortion.
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Look for that dispute to escalate as part of the defense authorization bill, particularly in the Senate. In the House, Chairman Rogers said he would work closely with top Democrat Adam Smith (Wash.) to avoid the issue bogging down the annual measure’s passage.
“I told the Pentagon not to do this, it was not something that really should be in that domain, they did not listen to me,” Rogers said in an interview. “Adam and I will find a way to navigate through the House without that becoming a problem. That’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.”
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