Final defense authorization authorizes epic spending and puts guardrails on Trump

Agreement creates new branch of military with Space Force within Air Force

An F-35 flies past the U.S. Capitol dome in June. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
An F-35 flies past the U.S. Capitol dome in June. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 10, 2019 at 11:36am

A House-Senate conference committee has filed a $735.2 billion defense authorization bill for fiscal 2020 that creates a new branch of the military and erects guardrails to keep the president from straying too far afield in foreign policy.

According to a bipartisan summary of the bill by the House and Senate Armed Services committees made public Monday night, the measure would authorize $658.4 billion in so-called base budgets, mainly at the Defense and Energy departments, plus an additional $71.5 billion for overseas campaigns and $5.3 billion for disaster relief.

[Congress frets over program to streamline Pentagon procurement]

An additional $8.1 billion in national defense programs are authorized by other panels besides Armed Services, bringing Congress’ authorized funding level for defense in the current fiscal year to $743.3 billion.

The House may vote on the measure Wednesday, but the Senate’s schedule is still to be determined. Barring a major surprise, President Donald Trump is expected to sign the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, into law by the end of the year.

The $743.3 billion is the highest since World War II, adjusting for inflation, save for during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The most historic change in the new NDAA is the creation of a sixth branch of the U.S. military, a Space Force within the Air Force. The measure also would establish a chief of space operations to lead the new uniformed branch, plus new assistant secretary positions in the Air Force and Defense secretariats.

On nuclear weapons, the conferees dropped a House-passed provision that would have blocked deployment of the W76-2, a submarine-launched nuclear warhead that has been altered to have a lower explosive yield than most atomic weapons. Democrats have said the new weapon increases the risk of nuclear war, while Republicans say it is needed to deter Russia.

The measure mostly bankrolls the president’s request for military hardware, and then some. The NDAA would authorize 12 more F-35 fighter jets for the U.S. military than the administration requested, for a total of $1 billion. It would authorize $440 million to keep building jets that Turkey was to buy before it was kicked out of the F-35 program for purchasing a Russian air defense system.

The compromise measure is also noteworthy for providing the biggest military pay raise in a decade, 3.1 percent, as requested by Trump.

The conference report gently rebuffs Trump on several overseas issues.

The bill would prevent him from taking two actions that many defense-minded members of Congress oppose. It would block Trump from pulling America out of NATO, and it would also bar reduction in U.S. forces in South Korea below 28,500 troops without a certification from the Defense secretary that such a decision would be in America’s interest.

As Trump looks to force South Korea and Japan to pay more for their own defense so the United States can pay less, the conferees would order reports on those countries’ contributions as a way of illustrating the importance of the alliances and presumably to show how much they are paying, not how little.

Amid an impeachment inquiry that centers largely on the Trump administration’s freeze on military aid to Ukraine last summer, the bill would authorize another $300 million in weapons for Ukraine.

The measure seeks to deter and contest Russian aggression in many ways. It would authorize an additional $743 million not requested for the European Defense Initiative, including many of the same type of military construction projects in Eastern Europe that Trump siphoned $3.6 billion from to build barriers along the border with Mexico.

The summary is silent on the president’s diversion of Pentagon money for those barriers, an apparent confirmation of some Armed Services Committee members’ recent comments that the bill punted to appropriators the contentious debate on Trump’s use of military money for the border initiative.

Still, the NDAA would require a report on how well those barriers are doing in disrupting illegal drug shipments from Mexico.