The Virginia-class attack submarine Minnesota (SSN 783) is under construction at Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Newport News Shipbuilding/Released)

On May 13, the House Armed Services Committee released the chairman’s mark for the fiscal 2025 National Defense Authorization Act. This week, the HASC will sit in full committee and hash out the details before a final vote. Ahead of that event — and it is often an “event,” one which can last into the early hours of the next day — Elaine McCusker and John Ferrari of the American Enterprise Institute lay out what they see as the good, the fine, and the missed chances of the chairman’s mark. 

Given the limited number of remaining joint legislative days before the end of the fiscal year and the inevitable distraction accompanying a presidential election, aggressive action on must-pass bills, like the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), is even more important than usual — particularly if it also prompts movement of the annual defense funding bill that could support an enhanced continuing resolution when time runs out this fall.

To that end, the released drafts for the bill House Armed Services Committee’s version of the annual defense authorization bill is moving in the right direction — although the scope and size of the bill mean there will always be plenty of debate along the way.

Some positives in the bill include a push for better pay for junior service members, addition of a second Virginia-class submarine, and an emphasis on drones.

Not content to wait for comprehensive compensation proposals from the Pentagon, the House authorizers have set a high bar in fixing military pay by proposing an increase of nearly 15 percent for the junior enlisted part of the force, on top of the 4.5 percent pay raise all military personnel would get. The bill would also increase housing stipends and broaden eligibility for the benefit that provides additional cash for service members with dependents. These changes are good for the force, but would cost the Pentagon billions that, without an increase in the top line, will have to come from somewhere else in the defense budget.

In providing authority to use incremental funding for construction of an additional Virginia-class submarine, the committee correctly notes the negative impact on the industrial base and supply chain that stems from the year-on-year unpredictability of the Navy’s shipbuilding plans. It further points out a foundational element of the AUKUS trilateral security partnership was the commitment to two SSNs plus one Columbia submarine per year, on which the Navy’s budget request falls short.

Not surprisingly, various policy, procurement, manufacturing, integration and management elements of unmanned systems and drones is a theme that runs through many of the subcommittee drafts. Most notably, the committee would create an Army drone corps, elevating the use of unmanned systems. Employing a tool that is often overused by authorizers — more on this in a moment — but that can also call attention to important subjects, the NDAA also directs a series of studies and reports on related things like drone-agnostic droppable munitions, plans to fill tactical unmanned aerial systems gaps, fielding counter-unmanned aircraft systems capabilities to brigade combat teams, passive multi-static radar technology for mobile counter unmanned aircraft systems, and expanded testing of commercially available autonomous systems.

The bill also needs some improvement, particularly when it comes to questions of resourcing and the budget process itself, where authorizers have shown leadership in the past.

The committee missed a major opportunity by not setting the marker for the defense budget America needs for the most important task the Constitution assigns to the Congress: providing for the common defense.  While authorizers do not appropriate funding, their expertise and influence has an impact in framing the defense spending debate. Not calling for money over the budget caps, and explaining to the public why that is needed, is a huge, missed opportunity.

In addition, rather than taking action on legislation proposed by the Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution reform commission to increase responsiveness and adaptability the house draft marks direct cross-functional teams to review the commission report.  Though the commission recommended DoD establish an implementation team to oversee internal changes, this is not the action needed from Congress for positive, timely improvements.

There are also several areas where the draft legislation could be improved as it moves ahead — specifically by not weighing down the department with additional bureaucracy, not accepting a force that is too small, and reducing rather than adding to the number of studies, reviews, reports and briefings required.

As we are learning in Ukraine and in other wars, the size of the force matters. Yet, the administration has requested, and the committees have so far accepted, a force that is smaller than what we have today.  Instead, the House should assume that their proposed enhancements to pay and other quality of life benefits will succeed and authorize the force the nation needs.

While increasing the fighting force, the committee should avoid adding more layers of Pentagon bureaucracy, such as the proposed new Chief Talent Officer. While the DoD needs to do a better job at managing talent, adding more people in the Pentagon is historically not a productive approach to solving such problems.

Finally, as has become increasingly customary in the huge defense policy bills, the subcommittees have loaded the Department with new studies, reports, and briefings, a practice that typically compounds as the authorization bill moves through Congress. A new practice should be followed where each increased requirement is accompanied by the removal of three legacy mandates.

Taken all together, the committees should be commended for producing this complex legislation so quickly after the late release of the budget request.  As the House moves the legislation through the full committee and then to the floor for a vote, they should also embrace opportunities to improve it and focus it more squarely on military capabilities.

Elaine McCusker is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) think tank. She previously served as the Pentagon’s acting undersecretary of defense (comptroller). Retired US Army Maj. Gen. John G. Ferrari is a senior nonresident fellow at AEI. Ferrari previously served as a director of program analysis and evaluation for the service.