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Proposed military slush fund would risk new boondoggles: Experts

A proposal supported by ex-NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg would speed up DoD acquisition authority without Congressional approval.

Reporting | Military Industrial Complex

As U.S. competition with China reaches a fever pace, Congress should give the Department of Defense the ability to initiate some contracts without having to secure funding from lawmakers, according to Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and current chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Board.

The proposal, which Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall first pitched earlier this year, would allow military leaders to “fill gaps as they arise, without having to wait on the passage of annual appropriations,” as Bloomberg wrote in Defense News on Monday. “There is always risk — financial and operational — in adopting cutting-edge technologies, but keeping the U.S. military the world’s foremost power requires greater appetite for risk.”

The Pentagon, for its part, says the proposal is necessary to deal with the “very aggressive contest for military technology superiority” between the United States and China. But watchdogs are doubtful about the potential upsides of such a provision. “It could lock in expenditures and commitments prior to Congressional approval, which would violate the basic principle of Congress's power of the purse,” argued Bill Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute.

“Moving more quickly doesn't always produce better results,” Hartung argued. “The U.S. arsenal is littered with dysfunctional systems that were rushed into production without adequate testing; and the new enthusiasm for AI and hypersonics risks bringing in unqualified or unscrupulous contractors looking to cash in on a new flood of [research and development] funding.”

The proposal also contributes to “China threat inflation” and opens up new avenues for acquisitions that DoD is unlikely to handle well, according to Julia Gledhill of the Project on Government Oversight. “The proposal lacks strong enforcement language to hold the Pentagon back from pursuing programs that fail to complete preliminary design reviews, or fail the reviews completely,” Gledhill added.

The House chose not to include the measure in this year’s defense policy bill, but it remains possible that the Senate will include the “Rapid Response To Emergent Technology Advancements or Threats” provision in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act. 

If the proposal does become law, the Pentagon would have up to $300 million each year to start developing new technology that would either “leverage an emergent technological advancement of value to the national defense” or “provide a rapid response to an emerging threat.”

As Bloomberg noted, the House version of the NDAA includes a pair of pilot programs that would grant the Pentagon a portion of Congress’s acquisition authority and ease restrictions on weapons purchases. But those programs pale in comparison to the one put forward by Kendall, which would give DoD significant leverage over lawmakers in decisions about future spending priorities.

EX-NYC Mayor and once presidential candidate (left, pictured with former DoD secretary Ashton Carter in 2012) wants to make it easier for the Pentagon to initiate contracts without Congressional approval of funding. (DoD photo)
Reporting | Military Industrial Complex
Chris Murphy Ben Cardin

Photo Credit: viewimage and lev radin via

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