Defense experts on April 27 warned the Pentagon not to seek money for its program wish lists as part of future spending legislation meant to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
The Department of the Air Force’s fiscal 2021 unfunded priorities list spans $3.2 billion for the Air Force and $1 billion for the Space Force, including big-ticket items like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and promising technologies like the Skyborg wingman drone. Those lists aim to secure extra money for important programs on top of the regular budget request.
Turning to UPLs might not “scratch the itch” of what Congress wants to fund for DOD as it looks to bolster the economy in the next stimulus package, Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said during his think tank’s event on the pandemic’s impact on the defense industry.
DOD received $10.5 billion in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act intended to shore up suffering parts of the defense industrial base, support various operational needs as military personnel work during the pandemic, and to purchase teleworking tools. The Pentagon can also access more funding held elsewhere in the federal government, like $17 billion in loans that are available for businesses critical to national security.
The Pentagon could instead ask Congress to create a pre-funded pot of money to pay companies back for cost overruns that weapons programs incur as companies keep workers on the payroll while progress is paused, Harrison suggested.
“Simply submitting unfunded lists whole cloth comes across as tone deaf and opportunistic,” Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident defense fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who appeared at the CSIS event, added in an April 27 Defense News op-ed. A better plan would be to focus on the health, safety, and continuity of all the Pentagon’s workforce: uniformed, civilian, and contractor.”
She suggests increasing liquidity by paying companies based on how much their contracts will be affected by pandemic-related delays, and potentially tapping unfunded priorities lists as a way to speed up certain projects like facilities sustainment and depot maintenance. Lawmakers should also use the Defense Production Act to send cash infusions to small businesses and subcontractors.
“Employees need to know the work is there, their safety is a priority, and their jobs are safe,” Eaglen wrote. “If the Pentagon and primes don’t take care of their suppliers and subcontractors, the defense-industrial base will contract again, losing crucial skills and talents permanently—and possibly seeing those companies bought up by China.”
Congressional appropriators could address certain pandemic response issues as part of the fiscal 2021 defense appropriations bill, though that would look at longer-term fixes rather than the more immediate needs now under consideration.
The next administration, whether for President Donald Trump’s second term or former Vice President Joe Biden’s first, faces the question of how to pay for the military in an anemic fiscal environment. After the Pentagon argued it needed as much as 5 percent annual budget growth to meet the demands of the current National Defense Strategy, experts say it will have to figure out how to make do within its existing constraints.
Eaglen suggested DOD could go as far as to take a new look at the 2018 NDS and decide which parts are the most pressing and which can wait. That reprioritization will be particularly handy if lawmakers pursue—and can agree on—new legislation that caps federal spending like the Budget Control Act, which expires in 2021.