WASHINGTON – A provision in the House’s annual defense authorization bill, released Monday, would require the Pentagon to establish a critical munitions reserve and establish a pilot program to keep better tabs on subcontractors involved in production.
If enacted, the legislation would require Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Bill LaPlante to procure subcomponents needed to manufacture each product on the Pentagon’s critical munitions list in order to “provide the capability to quickly access the amount of critical munitions inventory required for one or more years in order to accelerate the delivery of such munitions.”
A House Armed Services Committee staffer told reporters last week that the legislation would require an assessment of the Defense Department’s ability “to replenish critical munition inventories that address air superiority, interdiction, air and missile defense and hard and deeply buried target mission areas.”
The legislation directs the department to implement a pilot program to identify sub-tier suppliers, including those suppliers responsible for the storage and handling of controlled unclassified information related to munitions, according to the staffer.
“It sounds like a nod in the right direction, but it’s not clear what the direct effect would be,” Mark Cancian, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Defense News. “There are a couple of manufacturers that basically provide components for many different munitions, and you can get more components for munitions X, but that means fewer for Y.”
The legislation would also require the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment report quarterly to Congress on the state of the critical munitions reserve.
The Army previously expressed interest in advanced procurement funding for certain components needed to make Stinger anti-aircraft and Javelin anti-tank missiles to help ameliorate supply chain hold-ups in production.
The $40 billion Ukraine aid package that Congress passed last month includes $500 million to replenish U.S. critical munitions stockpiles. It also includes $600 million in Defense Production Act funding to help unclog munitions supply chains and expedite missile production.
The U.S. has sent about at least a quarter of its Stinger and at least one-third of its Javelin stockpiles to Ukraine. Raytheon has said that it will not be able to start producing additional supplies of Stingers for U.S inventories until next year amid supply chain shortages.
“There’s been interest in munitions for some time, but I think the experience with Stingers and Javelins have made people realize that the stocks could be drained pretty quickly and you have to rebuild them,” said Cancian.
The Committee is scheduled to advance the defense authorization bill on Wednesday, setting the stage for floor votes in each chamber later this year.
Munitions aside, the House bill also does away with geographical limitations for demining assistance and increase its funding cap in order to better aid Ukraine in its operations. The Senate’s defense authorization bill includes the same provision, introduced by Sen. Jon Ernst, R-Iowa.
The House bill would also allocate $450 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. That’s more than the Pentagon’s $300 million request but less than the $800 million in the Senate version of the bill, which the Armed Services Committee advanced last week.
Overall, the Senate bill adds $45 billion to the Joe Biden administration’s Fiscal 2023 defense budget request – an 8 percent increase over the Fiscal 2022 defense budget. However, the House bill allocates $772.5 billion for the Defense Department in line with the Biden budget and defense appropriators in the lower chamber for a smaller $32 billion increase over the FY22 Pentagon budget.
Unlike the House bill, the Senate version would also block the Biden administration’s plans to scrap the sea-launched cruise missile nuclear (SLCM-N) development program and pushes back against plans to retire the B83 megaton gravity bomb.
The competing stances on those two nuclear issues could lay the groundwork for a contentious debate when the House and Senate negotiate a compromise version of the defense authorization bill later this year.
Additionally, it would require the Defense Department to establish a center on civilian harm mitigation to increase oversight of civilian casualties.
“Certainly events over the last few years have raised a lot of oversight questions from the congressional perspective on incidents that have happened in different areas of responsibility,” the congressional staffer told reporters. “This is about ensuring that there is transparency in investigations an in reporting of what has occurred.”
The Defense Department has come under scrutiny over civilian casualties from drone strikes through multiple administrations. Lawmakers have increasingly voiced frustration over the Pentagon’s accounting of civilian casualties, particularly after a U.S. drone strike killed 10 civilians in Afghanistan last August.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in January directed the Pentagon to develop an action plan to reduce civilian casualties.
The House bill would also limit the Air Force’s desired retirements of E-3 Sentry, or Airborne Warning and Control System, aircraft. The service originally asked for permission to retire 15 AWACS from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma in 2023; this would be about half of the service’s current fleet of 31 E-3s.
The Air Force would then put the money saved by those retirements towards procuring and fielding the AWACS’ successor, the Boeing E-7 Wedgetail.
Some lawmakers have expressed concern that with the first rapid prototype Wedgetail not expected to be delivered until 2027, the Air Force could find itself with a capability gap in the meantime. The proposed House bill would only allow 10 E-3 retirements until the Air Force delivers a report on its airborne warning and control capabilities and requirements, both currently and in the future, and what a reduced fleet of 16 E-3s could carry out as compared to what today’s fleet can do.
House lawmakers also want to see an acquisition strategy for the Wedgetail, including its cost and schedule, plans for training airmen and fielding the planes, and possible ways it could speed up the acquisition of the new planes.
The Senate’s version includes language, inserted by Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, that would restrict AWACS retirements until it sees a Wedgetail acquisition strategy.
The House bill would also block the Air Force’s request to cut 33 Block 20 F-22A Raptor fighters. The proposed bill would require the Air Force to keep at least 186 F-22s – the current size of the fleet – unless one of the fighters is deemed no longer mission-capable or prohibitively expensive to repair due to a mishap.
Finally, the House bill would require all F-22s in the Air Force to be upgraded to Block 30 or 35 mission systems, sensors, and weapon capabilities or something more advanced by the beginning of fiscal 2030.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered the intersection of U.S. foreign policy and national security in Washington since 2014. He previously wrote for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.