Home » AUKUS, JADC2, planes and tanks: What’s in the draft $874.2B NDAA
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AUKUS, JADC2, planes and tanks: What’s in the draft $874.2B NDAA

From the future of Space Command’s headquarters to the Army’s hopes for the Chinook, here are updates on a few key provisions in a draft version of the defense policy bill.

WASHINGTON — House and Senate lawmakers late last night filed their compromise version of the annual defense policy bill, featuring a $874.2 billion topline, with key provisions ranging from the transfer of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia to significant upgrades for the Army’s Abrams tanks.

The bill’s topline represents a significant increase — $32 billion — over the president’s request for fiscal year 2024 of $842 billion.

Since the start of October, the Pentagon has been operating under a continuing resolution, meaning all programs receive funding levels on par with the previous year, and brand new programs, “new starts,” are prohibited from commencing — a situation that frustrates senior Pentagon officials annually.

Now, for the compromise bill, written jointly by a conference of lawmakers from the House and Senate, to become law, both chambers of Congress must individually pass identical versions of the legislation. It would then be sent to President Joe Biden’s desk for a signature.

There’s still a question as to if and when all that will happen, but if the bill passes in its current form, here are some critical takeaways from the bill.

Navy: AUKUS Subs And Aussie Money

For the Navy, one of the most watched issues in the compromise policy bill was provisions related to the trilateral security pact between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. The new bill would authorize the Defense Department to transfer up to three Virginia-class submarines to Australia, but only after one year elapses from the date the legislation is passed. (Navy leadership has previously said the first transfer is not scheduled to occur until 2032.)

The authority to transfer the submarines was a friction point for some lawmakers, such as Senate Armed Services Ranking Member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who have been generally supportive of AUKUS, but insist the US must ensure its own submarine industrial base is shored up prior to sending boats to Australia.

The legislation also establishes an account that allows the administration to accept funding from the Australian government to support the AUKUS agreement, which was one of several key requests the Pentagon made to lawmakers earlier this year. A senior Australian official has said Canberra plans to pour $3 billion into US shipyards as part of the AUKUS arrangement.

Army: Funding For Ground, Air, Sea Assets

The proposed authorization bill largely keeps Army programs intact and provides the service with permission to spend additional dollars on a few key programs this fiscal year.

For example, conferees provide the service with permission to spend up to $1.2 billion upgrading its M1 Abrams fleet this fiscal year, a significant boost over its $698 million request. For future Abrams upgrades, the legislation authorizes the service to spend $88 million above the service’s request to develop the path ahead for future main battle tank upgrades. If appropriators follow suit, those additional development dollars could presumably help the service move out more quickly on its more ambitious M1E3 Abrams plan, an initiative unveiled after the White House sent lawmakers the FY25 budget request.

As for the Self-Propelled Howitzer Paladin Integrated Management (PIM) program, the proposed package authorizes the Army to spend $674 million on procurement next year, a $205 million boost over the service’s initial request.

The future of the CH-47 Chinook fleet, and particularly CH–47F Block II, has remained a hot topic on Capitol Hill. It’s been roughly four years since the Army put the brakes on buying the CH-47F Chinook Block II configuration, which seeks to improve speed and cargo capacity over the Block I. Army aviation leaders are exploring what they want and need from a future heavy-lift helicopter and a decision on the Block II fate is expected to be reflected in the FY25 budget request.

Until then, though, the FY24 NDAA compromise package authorizes the service to spend a total of $380 million buying CH-47 Chinook helicopters this year, or  $177.5 million above its request for four additional helos. It also authorizes the service to spend $41 million on CH–47F Block II advanced procurement, a $22.5 million hike above the Army’s request.

On the water, conferees want the service to have enough money to buy one additional Maneuver Support Vessel- Light this year and they have provided the authorities to spend $191 million, $42 million over its ask.

Air Force: Finally Retiring A-10s, Saving F-22s

In a widely expected move, the bill would permit the Air Force to retire 42 A-10 Warthog aircraft, despite concerns that its successor, the F-35, may not be able to match the Warthog’s close air support capabilities. The legislation would also require the service to craft a long-term fighter force structure plan in conjunction with the Air National Guard and Reserve, which would permit the service to retire F-16 C/D fighters. Officials would further be limited to only retiring 68 F-15Es through 2029 and must maintain a minimum fighter inventory of 1,112.

But the bill would block other retirements sought by the service. Notably, the compromise legislation does not feature any language permitting the Air Force to retire Block 20 F-22s, of which the service sought to junk 32  this year. Service officials have warned money saved from those retirements is intended to fund its successor, the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter, and that if those retirements are blocked the NGAD money would have to come from elsewhere.

Similarly, the bill mandates no RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drones can be retired through 2028 and extends a prohibition on divestments of C-130s used by the National Guard for an extra year through 2024. Like this year’s NDAA, the Air Force would also be required to keep the HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter production line open, a buy the service sought to end early over concerns the platform is not survivable in a contested environment.

Following Lockheed Martin’s exit from a potential competition to recapitalize aging KC-135 aircraft, the draft bill would additionally require the Air Force secretary to submit a roadmap for fielding a next-gen tanker known as NGAS, as well as validated requirements and a business case analysis for the KC-135 Recapitalization Program. With Lockheed out, analysts previoulsy told Breaking Defense they expected Boeing’s beleaguered KC-46A — which the bill contains several provisions to monitor its lingering technical woes — will have a leg up against lone competitor Airbus.

Space Force: Basing Controversy Continues, More MTAs

Among a handful of provisions addressing Pentagon space activities, the NDAA draft would block any FY24 spending on a new headquarters building in Colorado Spring, Colo., for US Space Command until DoD’s inspector general completes an investigation of President Joe Biden’s decision to locate it there — overturning the previous decision by former President Donald Trump to base it in Huntsville, Ala.

That investigation, the language notes, must be completed on June 20, 2024. The joke, however, may be on the lawmakers. According to insiders, there actually isn’t any money slated in the FY24 defense budget request for the HQ. The first funds are being planned for the FY25 budget request.

The language also would approve the use of Middle Tier Acquisition authority by the Space Development Agency for the development of its low Earth orbit satellite constellations for data transport and missile tracking through 2030. This will enable the agency to move more quickly by freeing it from the traditional DoD requirements process.

Finally, the draft bill would require the Air Force’s space acquisition czar, Frank Calvelli, to establish a plan for identifying commercial capabilities to provide space situational awareness data for use by the Space Force’s operational systems. In addition, he is tasked to create an implementation plan for integrating the Unified Data Library into those systems.

In related news, for missile defense, the bill calls for six more Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors, increasing the Missile Defense Agency request from $217 million to $317 million. On GPI, it calls for achieving initial operational capability by end December 2039. The current DoD estimated date for IOC is 2035.

High Tech: JADC2, AI, Networks

Elsewhere in the draft bill, the conferees said they want the secretary of defense to designate roles and responsibilities for the Pentagon’s Combined Joint All Domain Command and Control (CJADC2) effort — and prioritize the “requirements” of US Indo-Pacific Command.

Lawmakers want to be briefed by the secretary of defense every 180 days through Dec 31, 2026 on CJADC2 roles and responsibilities. Separately, in another provision, the committees ask for quarterly briefings on the progress being made on CJADC2, including funding efforts, which would include the senior representatives from US Indo-Pacific Command, Central Command and European Command.

The bill also requires each military service acquisition executive to designate a principal technology transition advisor that would be responsible for identifying which technologies being researched and tested by DoD would meet warfighter requirements.

In another provision, the committees propose a pilot program for “anything-as-a-service,” which would “explore the use of consumption-based solutions to address any defense need … that is feasible to provide users on-demand access, quickly add newly released capabilities, and bill based on actual usage at fixed price units.”

The bill orders several studies on artificial intelligence. Two of them are meant to address applying AI to make logistics more efficient, directing the Air Force to launch a pilot project for AI management of fuel supplies and aerial refueling in a war zone where an enemy is attacking supply lines, and directing the Navy to study commercial best practices in AI and automation for maintenance work in shipyard. A third provision mandates a study of potential vulnerabilities across DoD artificial intelligence systems.

Chaos And Complications On The Hill

While the NDAA traditionally includes funding tables, the Pentagon won’t receive a penny of that funding until both sides of Congress pass, and the president signs, the annual defense appropriations bill.

Similar to the NDAA, that legislation has also been held up in recent months due to the legislative paralysis caused in part by House Republicans’ removal of former speaker Kevin McCarthy and subsequent election of Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., as the chamber’s leader.

With the GOP’s majority in the House being slim — more so now with the recent expulsion of George Santos and looming retirement of McCarthy —  and Democrats having majority control in the Senate as well as control of the White House, it’s unclear how long it could take before a final appropriations bill is published, voted on and passed.

Ukraine, Israel Supplemental Bites The Dust

The annual policy bill was filed late Wednesday night just hours after the Senate narrowly failed to pass a $106 billion supplemental funding bill that would have sent aid to Israel and Ukraine — a stiff blow to the president, who said before the vote that it was “overwhelming [in America’s] national interest and international interest of all our friends.”

The supplemental bill was voted down 49-51 largely along party lines with Republicans blocking the aid over what they say is the administration’s unwillingness to address issues at the country’s southern border.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who previously expressed skepticism about the bill because it “has no investments to address the crises facing working families across the country,” voted against the supplemental. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., changed his vote to “no” for procedural reasons.

Source : Breaking Defense