Congress Increases Innovation Funding, Again

By Sean Carberry

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The cat and mouse game between the White House and Congress over innovation funding in the annual defense budget continues.

Here’s the gist of it: The administration presents its annual defense budget proposal. It touts the request for research, development, test and evaluation funding, and states it is a significant increase over the previous year’s request.

Then, members dig into the proposal and chide the administration for requesting less science-and-technology funding than what Congress authorized and appropriated the previous year. During a May hearing, representatives criticized the budget request and questioned the administration’s commitment to innovation in defense technology.

And as expected, the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act the House Armed Services Committee passed by a 57-1 vote in June increased research, development, test and evaluation funding above what the administration requested.

The budget request was $130 billion — the highest amount ever requested for innovation funding — and the House countered with $138 billion, a 7 percent increase.

“Patterns get set, and I think to some degree when the president's budget comes out you can see that they're putting money over here because they know the Congress is going to plus-up over there,” said House Armed Services Committee Chair Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., during a media roundtable prior to the committee vote on the NDAA. “I don't know that we change that anytime soon.”

The House’s defense budget increases innovation funding at all levels: basic research, applied research, advanced technology development and on down the line. All the services, except for the Space Force, get significant innovation funding boosts in the House budget.

Specific areas the House increased include additive manufacturing, hypersonics, collaborative networked armament lethality and fire control, counter-unmanned aerial systems technology, biotechnology, hybrid electric vehicles and lithium battery technology.

The HASC budget increases the Army’s science-and-technology funding to $3.8 billion, a 40 percent jump from the requested $2.7 billion. However, the $3.8 billion is less than the $4.3 billion the Army received in fiscal year 2022. So, with inflation factored in, the 2023 funding is a notable drop from 2022 funding.

Similarly, the 2023 HASC funding is slightly less than what the Navy and Air Force received in 2022 science-and-technology money. Hence, the increase to the topline research, development, test and evaluation budget is coming in the later system development, prototyping and demonstration phases.

Vulnerability and survivability were two themes that Smith hit repeatedly during the media discussion. He expressed reservations about procuring more F-35s, for example, because technological advances by adversaries raise questions about how effective the fifth-generation fighter can be in a contested environment.

“What is the mission of the F-35? I mean originally it was contemplated it would be a fighter that could go anywhere and do anything, and it's not that,” he said. “Missile technology and targeting technology has simply gotten so much better in the last decade that it has limited the mission range of the F-35 to some extent.”

Which is why he pushed for dialing back investments in major platforms and increasing the focus on innovation.

“There's a more fundamental question here before we get to how we should use that stuff, and that is the vulnerability of our systems,” he said. “We need to make a significant investment in upgrading our communication systems and our software so that they can be better protected.

“We have systems that are too vulnerable to attack right now because they're old, and we just haven’t updated those systems,” he added.

The House would plus-up innovation funding because it is critical to the future fight, Smith added. “But the other big piece again on innovation is to get the Pentagon better at buying stuff, which by the way has kind of started to happen.”

Acquisition reforms spearheaded by retired House Armed Services chair Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, have improved the ability to upgrade and purchase innovative technologies, Smith said.

“Going forward some of it is money, some of it is just, you know, using the systems better,” he added. “We really want to focus on empowering the purchase of commercial-off-the-shelf technology in a quicker way without a program of record.”

Despite his calls for restraint in the 2023 defense budget, the HASC passed a $37 billion increase to the proposed $813 billion defense budget — of which $773 billion was requested for the Defense Department.

The Senate Armed Services Committee went even bigger and passed a $45 billion increase. However, the upper chamber did not release a detailed breakdown of its $857 billion defense budget, of which $817 billion would go to the Defense Department.

The summary document states that inflation was the main driver of the increase over the budget request. The summary does not provide details on innovation funding, so it is not clear what differences the chambers will have to reconcile in that area as they wrestle with the $8 billion gap between their bills.

The other pattern likely to repeat itself is the failure to pass a defense appropriation bill before the start of fiscal year 2023. The Defense Department has started 12 of the last 13 fiscal years under a continuing resolution. That’s on Congress.

Topics: Budget

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