What is the Pentagon doing with record R&D Appropriations?

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

OPINION — House and Senate conferees on their own, upped the Defense Department’s fiscal 2023 research and development appropriations to $140 billion.  That’s $10 billion higher than the Biden administration’s original request of $130 billion, which already was the largest R&D budget number in DoD history.

The DoD R&D amount in the omnibus spending bill that President Biden signed December 29 was $5 billion more than the figure earlier approved by the Senate and $8 billion above the amount that passed the House.

That unusual action of the conferees is one of a number of interesting issues raised in the 329-page summary statement released last week describing what was done in the Defense Department fiscal 2023 appropriations section of the 4,155-page Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023.

The conferees spread the R&D increases among the services, with the Army having the biggest increase of $2.4 billion; the Navy up $2 billion; the Air Force and Space Force up $1 billion each. R&D Defense-wide, was up $2.5 billion and DoD alone up $1.5 billion.

Increases for R&D spending on hypersonics were popular with an added $150 million going toward hypersonic test facility modular assemblies; another $98 million for a four-foot, multi-sonic wind tunnel; $53 million for a hypersonics high speed test track, and $52 million for a hypersonics scramjet wind tunnel. On the defensive side, an extra $144 million was added for testing additional hypersonics sensor packages for RQ-4 and MQ-9 [unmanned aircraft system] platforms.

Overall, the fiscal 2023 bill contained $4.5 billion for the development and fielding of hypersonic weapons and related technologies.

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Another big increase – some $8 billion – was attributed by the conferees to “higher-than-budgeted inflation” in such items as fuel ($3.7 billion), basic allowance for military housing ($1.2 billion), acquisition programs ($1.05 billion), basic subsistence allowances ($327.8 million) and offset for price increases for commissary patrons ($209.6 million).

Among the more unusual funding explanations was the conferees description of finding $1.8 billion through “congressional increases and excess funds transferred from elsewhere within the JSF [Joint Strike Fighter F-35] program,” to make up for increased costs that had endangered 19 already contracted aircraft as part of purchase lots 15-17 in fiscal 2021 and fiscal 2022. The House Appropriations Committee statement on the omnibus bill said that the $1.8 billion “provides funding to cover a shortfall in the most recent production contract that would otherwise put 19 aircraft in fiscal year 2023 and prior years, at risk.”

A search of the omnibus bill’s explanatory statement shows $27 million taken from the F-35B short take-off and vertical landing program and another $35 million from the F-35C aircraft carrier based program. An $820 million increase to the Air Force procurement of F-35s was made with the explanation “Program increase – restore eleven aircraft to lots 15-to-17.” Another $115 million was added under the description “Air Force-requested transfer…for unit cost increase.”

Making the whole F-35 found fiscal 2023 money more interesting, was the DoD’s public announcement of contracts awarded last Friday, December 30. It reported awarding $7.8 billion as a “modification” to a previously awarded contract for F-35s to Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., using fiscal 2022 DoD funds.

“This modification adds scope to procure 127 F-35 Lot 16 aircraft,” read one part of the DoD announcement, while another section described it as “a modification…in support of F-35 Lot 15 aircraft procurements and associated auxiliary equipment.”

The DoD announcement described the F-35 $7.8 billion Lockheed award as a “fixed-price incentive (firm-target), firm-fixed-price, cost-plus-fixed-fee modification.”

Another record-breaking Congressional addition to the fiscal 2023 Defense Appropriations Bill, is the almost $2 billion added for Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP).

Believe it or not, this began back in 1992, when then-Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced a $25 million earmark to the fiscal 1993 Defense Appropriations bill for the Army to conduct breast cancer research because that year a cap had been put on funds for the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health.

The next year, thanks to grass-roots breast cancer lobbying groups, Congress earmarked $210 million for DoD to run its own peer-reviewed breast cancer research — programs never requested in any presidential DoD budget and outside of the Pentagon’s traditional mission of battlefield medicine and research, as I wrote back in March 2011 in a Washington Post column.

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Over the years, this peer review DoD managed private medical research, has grown to cover dozens of illnesses and the funds made available also have grown. In fiscal 2021, it was $1.5 billion, dropped to $1.3 billion in fiscal 2022 and now has been put at $1.9 billion for fiscal 2023. The conferees included a new $30 million for a peer-reviewed toxic exposures research program covering such things as Gulf War illness and its treatment; airborne hazards and burn pits; as well as toxic military exposures in general.

Also now funded through CDMRP, are programs for the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences multi-domain operations, a telemedicine and advanced technology research center and joint civilian-medical surge facilities.

Earmarking on DoD appropriations the old-fashioned way had been dropped a decade ago. What has remained on the House side, is now called Community Project Funding and it is limited to only R&D programs. The Omnibus bill separately lists 16 such projects which altogether total over $55 million.  Almost all are scheduled to go to colleges and universities in members’ districts.

However, the Army procurement section carries $10 million, added by the conferees, to purchase what is listed as High Mobility Engineer Excavators (HMEE). These are backhoes that can lift up to two tons and dig to a depth of 13 feet but are mounted on truck bodies allowing them to travel at speeds that equal the speed of Army tanks.

The Army has been purchasing HMEEs for more than a decade. Back in August 2018, they held a celebration in Pooler, Georgia, at JCB Inc., the company that builds the HMEE, to celebrate the military’s purchase of the 1,000th HMEE. Later in 2018, JCB got a $72.8 million contract for approximately 180 HMEEs that continued production at least through 2020, with future contracts expected to keep the HMEE assembly line going for an additional five years.

However, for the past two years, the Army has stopped ordering HMEEs. As a result, this year’s previously passed House fiscal 2023 Defense Appropriations bill carried language that noted, “The Army did not request funding for the High Mobility Engineer Excavator (HMEE) program in fiscal year 2023, and does not plan to request funding in fiscal year 2024.”

Faced with that situation, the House Appropriations Committee directed the Secretary of the Army to provide a briefing “on plans to maintain the HMEE production line and the Army’s resource strategy for HMEE over the next five years.” The omnibus fiscal 2023 provides $10 million to keep that HMEE production line going.

That sounds to me like an old-fashioned earmark.

Then there are Congressional add-ons that are just plain interesting because they lead one to areas that have not been publicized.

For example, the conferees added $250 million to accelerate the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s low-earth orbit missile warning and missile tracking satellite acquisition. These are small satellites that carry overhead persistent infrared sensors, providing key space-based missile tracking capabilities. These tracking satellites are to be launched by the Space Development Agency (SDA) and will be part of the broader National Defense Space Architecture, which will consist of hundreds of satellites, primarily operating in low-earth orbit.

The ‘Tranche 0’, SDA satellite launches, the first in SDA’s history, are now scheduled for March 2023, six months later than the agency’s initial goal of September 2022. Tranche 0 is slated to include 28 satellites in total—20 in the Transport Layer, responsible for communications and data transmission, and 8 in the Tracking Layer, for missile tracking and warning, according to Air & Space Forces Magazine.

SDA is acquiring hundreds of satellites and associated ground systems for a low-earth orbit constellation that will be used to detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missiles, and a mesh network of communications satellites to pass data to military users around the world. 

The conferees supported what they called “the pivot to a more proliferated and diverse architecture of smaller satellites,” but added, “The Space Force has not provided sufficient information on the expected life-cycle cost of the new architecture.” They worried about costs “to recapitalize a proliferated architecture every three to five years…the ability of the Space Force to scale up capabilities to command and control a much larger number of satellites and resilience against reversible and irreversible kinetic and non-kinetic attacks.”

The conferees also directed the Air Force Secretary, in consultation with the Chief of Space Operations, to brief the appropriate congressional committees on “each of the missile warning and missile tracking programs to include a comparison of the cost, schedule, capabilities, system life-span, and associated risk of each.” Such reporting must include “an integrated master schedule for all missile warning and missile tracking weapon systems currently in operation or development,” according to the conferee agreement.

Why were the conferees worried about integration of all these systems?

Reading the conferee report introduced me, and perhaps most readers, into the major change – or pivot as used above – in how the U.S. will be doing its missile warning/tracking of incoming threats in the future.

I remember back to the Cold War days, when the U.S. depended on ground-based radars in Greenland and in countries surrounding the Soviet Union. Then, came the Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) program, large satellites in geosynchronous orbit some 36,000 kilometers above the Earth. That OPIR system largely relied on a ballistic trajectory of missiles, with a predicted impact point.

With the advent of hypersonic missiles that are more maneuverable and harder to see, a new approach was needed to detect and then track, multiple hypersonics throughout their flight.

Last July, the U.S. launched an experimental satellite into geosynchronous orbit designed for a three to five year lifespan, with the primary mission to explore future hypersonic and other missile warning algorithms with data collected in space. It monitors over the Equator for infrared signatures at a higher resolution and over more of the Earth, including the Pacific area, than existing OPIR satellites.

Col. Heather B. Bogstie of the Space Force’s Space Systems Command told reporters last June 28, before the launch, “It’s important, knowing that the threat’s imminent right now, how this particular mission is a pathfinder for what we are looking to field here in ’26 [2026].”

What the U.S. envisions, and the fiscal 2023 Omnibus Appropriations measure shows, is a multilayer architecture of missile-defense satellites in geostationary, highly elliptical, medium and low Earth orbits.

However, each of these layers is being developed and procured by a different DoD agency.

Space Force is working on medium-earth orbit with the hopes of orbiting at least four satellites by 2028. SDA hopes to create a constellation of 100 tracking satellites in low-earth orbit and the Missile Defense Agency is working on Next-Gen OPIR to consist of three satellites in geosynchronous orbit providing coverage over mid-latitudes, and two Polar satellites in highly elliptical orbit for coverage over the upper latitudes. The first new OPIR satellite is set for launch in 2025; the first Polar in 2028.

Last September, in order to coordinate the three efforts, a new program office was established in Space Systems Command (SSC) headed by Col. Brian Denaro, SSC space sensing program executive officer. Denaro said the combined program office “establishes a formal partnership among missile warning, missile tracking and missile defense acquisition organizations for greater delivery of integrated and resilient sensor-to-shooter capabilities,”

We shall see.

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