Secretary Carter Blasts Armed Services Committees’ Authorization Bills
Public DomainNATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ripped legislative provisions recently passed by the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, saying May 17 that he would recommend President Barack Obama veto them if they ever reached his desk.
The Pentagon chief attacked several aspects of the Senate and House versions of the fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, during a keynote speech at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference.
One key provision he objected to in the Senate version of the NDAA was the weakening of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics – the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer. The bill would essentially eliminate the position, currently held by Frank Kendall, and divvy up its responsibilities among a new undersecretary for research and engineering and an undersecretary of management and support.
“Separating research and engineering from manufacturing, which is implied in this proposal, could introduce problems” in the transition from the research and engineering phase to the production and sustainment phases, Carter said.
Such transitions are “a frequent stumbling block for programs,” he said, citing as an example the “growing pains” in moving the F-35 joint strike fighter program from the engineering and manufacturing development phase to low-rate initial production.
Carter said he shares concerns that the acquisition executive’s position has become “preoccupied” with program management at the expensive of focusing on the research and engineering aspect of the job. Nevertheless, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s proposal would be counterproductive, he argued.
Procurement and sustainment are closely linked with technology, engineering and development, and represent about 90 percent of the cost of most programs, he noted.
“Separating these functions makes no sense, as procurement and sustainment costs are controlled by decisions made during development,” Carter said.
The move could derail the Pentagon’s efforts to lower contract cost growth on the most high-risk contracts, he said, noting that such cost growth currently stands at a 35-year low.
The defense leader called the Senate’s approach “overly prescriptive,” saying it could lead to unhelpful micromanagement and negative second- and third-order effects. He did not specify what those effects might be.
Carter also took aim at a funding provision in the House NDAA that would move about $18 billion in overseas contingency operations money to the base budget to pay for non-war related items. Its proponents have suggested they are banking on the hope that the next president will add supplemental war funding to the budget in the middle of the fiscal year to cover the costs of ongoing operations.
Deriding the proposal as “budget gimmickry” and irresponsible “gambling,” Carter said it would have several negative effects.
“Most disturbingly, it raids war funds in a time of war when we have men and women deployed in operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria,” he said. “Moreover, it would spend money taken from the war account on things … that are not DoD’s highest priorities.”
The House bill would undermine readiness, he argued, by beefing up the size of the military without ensuring there will be sufficient funding for training ranges, schoolhouses, depots and shipyards. ?“It’s a path to a hollow force,” he said.
On a broader fiscal level, Carter is concerned that the diversion of war funds to the base budget could upend the bipartisan budget agreement reached last year, which set base budget and war funding levels for fiscal years 2016 and 2017.
The effort by lawmakers to bust the spending caps could lead to budget turmoil, including a continuing resolution and the return of sequestration, he said.
“The budget stability that was supposed to last for two years is already under threat after only six months,” he said. “It’s … exactly the kind of terrible distraction we’ve had for years. It undercuts stable planning and efficient use of taxpayer dollars, dispirits troops and their families, baffles friends and emboldens foes.”
The head of the Pentagon also criticized the committees for not approving some of his reform proposals, including another round of base realignment and closure.
For the controversial provisions in the NDAA bills to become law, the House and Senate must include them in the reconciled version that comes out of a joint conference. The two chambers must then pass a common NDAA, and the president must sign it.
“If a final version of the NDAA reaches the president this year … that risks stability and gambles with war funding, jeopardizes readiness and rejects key judgments of the department, I will be compelled to recommend that he veto the bill,” Carter said. “I am hopeful, however, that we can work with Congress to achieve a better solution.”