The latest news and legislative activity affecting national defense

November 24, 2020
Legislative updates

Senate Foreign Relations

Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) is set to return as the Foreign Relations Committee’s top Republican and continue his focus on redefining U.S.-China relations. He also wants to invest in global health security to prevent future pandemics and build on U.S. alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Joining him at the top of the committee will likely be Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), whose leading priorities will include rolling back President Trump’s foreign policy and to increase diversity at all levels of foreign policy leadership. Risch and Menendez are concerned about China’s theft of U.S. intellectual property and the trade war between the two countries damaging the American economy. They could push for action during the lame-duck session on a bipartisan measure (S. 2641) that would impose sanctions against Turkey, a NATO ally, for its purchase of the Russian-made S400 missile system. The committee approved it by an 18-4 vote in December 2019. The lawmakers will also consider how to prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, including the future of the Obama-era “P5+`1" deal that limited the country’s nuclear weapons development in exchange for sanctions relief, which the Trump administration withdrew from in opposition to Risch and Menendez.

House Armed Services Committee (HASC)

While Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) remains Chairman, the retirement of Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-CA) has made the race to be the next top Republican on HASC into a heated contest among some of the most vocal defense hawks. The most likely to win is either Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) or Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL). Both have served nine terms in the House and have chaired the subcommittee overseeing strategic forces. The Republican Steering Committee is expected to meet after Thanksgiving to vote on committee leadership posts. Meanwhile the negotiations on a final NDAA has begun and attempts to scramble Trump's plans to remove troops from Germany and Afghanistan, the renaming of bases with confederate names and top funding levels are the issues of contention. The four leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are aiming to have a final bill ready for a vote by early December. Next year, we expect both HASC and SASC as well as House and Senate Homeland Security Committees to tackle cybersecurity and counterrorism in the new Congress, as the nation relies on online systems at an unprecedented level during the coronavirus pandemic. For example, the House-passed Information Technology Modernization Centers of Excellence Program Act (H.R. 5901 and S. 4200) would codify an AI Center of Excellence within the General Services Administration.

Pentagon Upheavals

Secretary Mark Esper was ousted and now the Pentagon is working to bring troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq down to 2,500 by January 15, which has set off an uproar among the president’s GOP allies in Congress. Almost 800,000 U.S. troops have been deployed to Afghanistan over the last two decades, and over 2,400 died fighting a war widely ignored by the American public. However, sudden removal is opposed by many. Esper was fired in part for pushing back on the president's efforts to accelerate the Afghanistan drawdown against the advice of military commanders. Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY), one of Trump’s biggest allies, warned that the consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama's withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, agrees. Meanwhile for a third year in a row, the department has failed a comprehensive audit, but officials insisted that steady progress is being made to track its notoriously messy books.

October 13, 2020
Legislative updates

National Defense Authorization Act

Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) aims to bring the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to the House floor during the first week of December. Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-TX), who is retiring after 25 years, said the bill should be finalized soon after the elections. The House passed HR 2500 by 220-197 on July 12 and the Senate passed its version, S 4049, by 86-14 on July 23. Much of the public debate about this year’s NDAA has concentrated on the renaming of U.S. military installations named for Confederates, banning the flying of the confederate flag, revision of the Insurrection Act, and preventing the use of defense dollars to build President Trump’s border wall. Both chambers agree on the major parts of the bill, including starting the process of renaming installations and ships currently named after Confederate leaders, a stance that has prompted a veto threat from President Trump.

Of note, the operations and maintenance (O&M) funds are typically appropriated for one year at a time and any money left over at the end of the fiscal year is lost if not spent, thus causing the “spend it or lose it” frenzy in August-September each year. At almost $289 billion of $705 billion in total defense funding requested this year, the hurried expenditure of O&M dollars represents billions of dollars of inefficient spending over the years, concludes Rep. Thornberry. With the Chairman’s support, he has pushed to allow the Pentagon to spend 50 percent of unused O&M funds in the next fiscal year, which is allowed for many other federal agencies. However, this is battle of authorizers versus appropriators as it shifts control. Also of note, the Senate NDAA tries to get a better accounting of spending by setting up a process for the four defense committees to review proposed changes to the justification books by the Pentagon and address “pass through” spending that artificially inflates the Air Force’s topline and hurts its bottom line.

Both chambers eliminate the Pentagon’s Chief Management Officer (CMO) position by September 30, 2022 in their bills. After President Trump announced his intent to remove 9,500 American troops from Germany and cap the total number of military personnel in the country at 25,000, Congress has moved to stop this. Concerned the White House shipbuilding request falls short again and we do not have enough tactical aircraft for the Pentagon’s war plans, both chambers support the building of more ships and more aircraft fighters. The House and Senate bills currently are $2 billion apart on how much to spend on the F-35 and whether to procure a second Virginia-class attack submarine.  The Senate added $1.36 billion to buy 14 more Joint Strike Fighters. The House, on the other hand, wants to purchase the same number of F-35s as the Pentagon requested, and would cut funding for F-35 support infrastructure by $561 million. The difference is now left to be resolved in conference or by appropriators.

Pentagon and Covid-19

Most of the Joint Chiefs are in quarantine after the Coast Guard’s No. 2 tests positive for the coronavirus. The top military leaders may have been exposed in a meeting with Adm. Charles Ray, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, who tested positive for Covid-19 on October 5. In total seven members of the Joint Chiefs, including the chair, Gen. Mark Milley, are in self-quarantine and being retested, as well as U.S. Cyber Command chief Gen. Paul Nakasone and Gen. Gary Thomas, the assistant Marine Corps commandant. Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite were traveling and did not attend the Pentagon meetings with Ray. Meanwhile, 34 people who have tested positive in the Trump Covid-19 outbreak continue to quarantine.

Pentagon’s Use of Coronavirus Funds

The House Armed Services chair has defended the Pentagon’s use of coronavirus relief funds to bolster the defense industry and says no probe is necessary. On October 9, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, the House Financial Services Committee and the House Oversight and Reform Committee launched an investigation Friday into whether the Pentagon inappropriately routed hundreds of millions of dollars to the defense industry instead of purchasing medical supplies and personal protective equipment. The probe was sparked by a report last month in The Washington Post, which Smith said “isn’t actually accurate.”

Defense Funds On Demand Pharmaceuticals

The DoD awarded a $20 million contract to On Demand Pharmaceuticals for domestic manufacturing of prescription drugs and ingredients as part of the government’s effort to avert drug shortages and price gouging during the pandemic. The Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) already funded the development of the company’s drug-making technology, and the company now is getting money set aside by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act for pandemic response projects. The press release says the award was done in collaboration with the HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, but the Defense Department awarded the money and DARPA oversees the project. The Defense Department long ago took an interest in funding technologies that allow for rapid responses to biological threats, and that biodefense initiative has merged with the pandemic response. A prime example is the Moderna coronavirus vaccine. The mRNA technology that Moderna is using for that vaccine was developed with Defense funding years ago. Also, the Defense Department handled most of the coronavirus vaccine contracts, even though the money came from HHS’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which received $3.5 billion from the CARES Act for developing, making and purchasing coronavirus vaccines, drugs and diagnostics.


On September 30, the House Armed Services Committee released “The Future of Defense Tasks Force Report” which urges the Trump Administration to expand visas for STEM students to incentivize them to stay and work in the United States. The report showed that international students return to their countries after their studies with critical knowledge and capacity. The report found that many would stay in the U.S. if allowed. In 2017, international students accounted for 54% of master’s degrees and 44% of doctorate degrees in the STEM fields in the United States. DoD is concerned about building the pipeline of STEM professionals for the military and regularly funds programs to address this issue.

August 18, 2020
Legislative updates

DoD, Cybersecurity and AI

In addition to the summary above on the Defense Appropriations bill, the DoD via DARPA is focused on cybersecurity and additional funding. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is about to launch a new funding program as it seeks information on ways to secure billions of internet-connected devices against futuristic code-breaking tools, according to an August 11 sources-sought notice. DARPA envisions a future in which billions, perhaps trillions, of small electronic devices – security cameras, drones, self-driving vehicles, and even household appliances like toasters – are connected over 5G wireless networks, the “Internet of Things,” or IoT. Because these devices are simple in terms of built-in computing power, robust encryption is often an afterthought.

Moreover, quantum computers will render most forms of conventional cryptography now used to secure data obsolete over the next 15 years, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). This raises the risk that billions of devices may be at risk of cyberattack. DARPA will launch a new Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program called Cryptography for Hyper-scale Architectures in a Robust Internet of Things (CHARIOT) and will award Direct to Phase 2 grants. The program will focus on prototyping encryption technologies that are “fast, efficient, and quantum-resistant on even the cheapest devices.” DARPA officials are especially interested in applications relevant to wearable devices and vehicle-embedded systems. The agency may issue multiple awards, each with a two-year base period of performance and maximum value of $1.5 million, and a 12-month option period worth up to $500,000. The deadline to submit proposals is September 29. Previously, DARPA requested $1.1 billion in unclassified funding for 70 projects related to cryptography or cybersecurity in its FY2021 Research, Development, Test & Evaluation budget and requested $171 million for nine projects related to quantum information sciences. DARPA’s total unclassified RDT&E budget request for FY2021 was $3.6 billion.

The Trump administration is also prioritizing AI R&D in the Defense budget. To buttress Artificial Intelligence efforts, the FY22 budget development efforts prioritize research investments consistent with President Trump’s executive order on Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence signed in February 2019 and the 2019 update of the National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan. Transformative basic research priorities include research on ethical issues of AI, data-efficient and high-performance machine learning (ML) techniques, cognitive AI, secure and trustworthy Al. The current pandemic highlights the importance of use-inspired AI research for healthcare, including AI for discovery of therapeutics and vaccines; Al-based search of publications and patents for scientific insights; and Al for improved imaging, diagnosis, and data analysis. Beyond healthcare, use-inspired AI research for scientific and engineering discovery across many domains can help the nation address future crises.

In addition, the administration is focused on Quantum Information Science. Consistent with the 2018 National Quantum Initiative Act and the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, departments and agencies are encouraged to pursue quantum frontiers by prioritizing approaches for enabling and invigorating the nascent QIS ecosystem while deepening focused efforts, such as centers, core programs, and novel quantum networking collaborations. Opportunities to encourage collaboration between efforts and agencies are a priority as well as pre-competitive R&D through mechanisms such as consortia. Continued support for technology translation efforts, investment in critical infrastructure and testbeds in concert with work on future computing paradigms and advanced manufacturing to enable next-generation quantum devices are all supported by the administration.

DoD Procurement Impacting Data

Ellen Lord, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment has developed pilot programs to test the acquisition of and transform the process for software procurement across the military. The “Color of Money” tests will analyze how contracting officers purchase software under its own budget activity. The BA-8, a new budget activity line, has been designed for an agile procurement process. This follows up on Lord’s January interim policy memo on changes to software acquisition practices with the final guidance to create new pathways to buy code yet to be released but expected this fall. The policy will ensure that contracting officers are equipped with the best practices, including agile and DevSecOps. In addition, Lord stated that her office is working with the Defense Digital Service to expand the program to improve recruitment and retention of technical officials.

Supporting Aerospace Manufacturing

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Rick Larsen (D-WA) introduced bipartisan legislation with Rep. Ron Estes (R-KS) that aims to preserve aviation manufacturing jobs by providing up to 50% cost-share for employees at risk of being furloughed because of the pandemic. The bill also includes provisions to protect jobs and boost labor protections and prevent relief funds from being spent on stock buybacks or to pay dividends. The bill is supported by the Aerospace Industries Association, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and General Aviation Manufacturers Association.