The $886.3 billion defense budget is headed for President Joe Biden’s desk and Congress is headed home for the holidays, its business concluded—albeit not finished—for the year.
The House on Dec. 14 approved the Fiscal Year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (FY24 NDAA) in a 310–118 vote, ensuring its passage a day after the Senate adopted the massive appropriations measure in an 87–13 tally.
The NDAA earmarks $841.5 billion for the Department of Defense (DOD)—nearly $32 billion, or 3 percent, more than the FY23 NDAA—$32.26 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration, and $12.1 billion in defense-related allocations for other federal agencies.
Both chambers adopted their respective defense budgets in July. The NDAA is one of 12 appropriations bills that constitute the federal government’s yearly budget. Five have now been adopted for FY24, which began Oct. 1. Parts of the federal government are operating under continuing resolutions.
A Senate–House conference committee reconciled differences in the chamber budgets for two months. On Dec. 6, it produced a 3,093-page draft NDAA, 718-page conference report, and a bucket of parliamentary worms that, ultimately, provided the only intrigue during the must-pass bill’s last unpassed days.
The NDAA includes a 5.2-percent pay raise for service members, $145 billion for research into artificial intelligence and hypersonics, investments in Space Force and many, many things—$886.3 billion worth.
Below are 10 takeaways from the slow-walked NDAA’s sudden Dec. 13–14 rocket-docket dash through the Senate and House, three months after the federal fiscal year began, and six months after both chambers passed seminal budgets.
Crosshairs on China
The NDAA includes hundreds of allocations to counter the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) growing, aggressive military as the Pentagon’s top “pacing challenge.”
The budget boosts Taiwan’s and Guam’s defense, requests an analysis of a how a 2030 war with China would unfold, tracks defense contractors’ investments in China and China’s investments in defense contractors, and mandates an adjusted Navy shipbuilding plan that emphasizes platforms geared to thwart China’s projected 500-ship navy.
The NDAA establishes a $500 million Taiwan Foreign Military Financing fund and earmarks $108 million to authorize “a comprehensive training, advising, and institutional capacity-building program” for Taiwan’s military.
The budget commits billions to Guam’s defense with deployment of a Marine regiment and Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow 3 missile defense systems.
The NDAA boosts alliances with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK with $9.1 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a 40 percent increase.
The NDAA’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Section 702 extension was fiercely, but futilely, contested on both chamber’s floors.
FISA Section 702 allows intelligence agencies to intercept foreign communications without warrants. It provides a “back door” to ferret through Americans’ conversations with foreign nationals, conservatives say.
Section 702 expires Dec. 31. House Armed Forces Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said extending it to mid-April provides time to reform FISA while not handcuffing intelligence agencies.
“By God, let’s reform it,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said, “but do not let it expire. If it expires, Americans and allies will die.”
Reps. Chip Roy (R-Texas) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) maintained the extension should be separately debated, is not related to defense, and would reauthorize it for 16 months, not four.
“What we’re going to do is pile an extension of FISA on the backs of our men and women in uniform,” Mr. Roy said.
Yoked to Woke
When the House adopted its defense budget in July, it included amendments banning the DOD’s paid-leave abortion policy, gender-transition treatments and surgeries for service members and their families, and funding for on-base drag shows.
None are in the NDAA reported out of conference committee Dec. 6, approved by the Senate Dec. 12, and endorsed by the House Dec. 13.
Mr. Gaetz said the NDAA was a good bill in July but is now something else. “You almost feel like a parent who sent a child to summer camp and comes back a monster,” he said.
Win some, lose some, Mr. Rogers said.
The NDAA bans critical race theory, bases promotions on merit, requires a special inspector general for Ukraine, mandates “the DOD to finally pass an audit,” and provides “a path back for those discharged over COVID-19 vaccine.”
DOD Inoculated Against Vaccine Reparations
The NDAA incorporates most of a House-adopted amendment to reinstate 8,600 service members discharged for refusing the DOD-mandated COVID-19 vaccine.
To qualify, discharged veterans must be within two years of separation and have requested an exemption.
The NDAA also requires the DOD to conduct a study evaluating the health effects of the COVID-19 vaccine, establish a board to review the discharges, and track down to query those discharged about reenlisting within the next six months.
The NDAA “provides a path back to service for those discharged over COVID-19 vaccine” without losing rank, Mr. Rogers said.
But not all the way back, Mr. Gaetz lamented.
“We were told over and over again there would be back-pay, reparations, and restoration-of-rank for people improperly told they could not express their patriotism through military service because they didn’t want to take an experimental vaccine,” he said, but those provisions are “totally absent” in the “watered-down NDAA.”
Marines Get Their Amphib
The NDAA requires the Navy and Air Force to build more ships and aircraft than initially requested, and delays or prohibits planned retirements of several ships and warplane types.
The Navy’s $255.8 billion budget, a 4.5 percent increase, earmarks $32.9 billion to build eight warships: a Columbia-class ballistic submarine, two Virginia-class submarines—part of a multiyear procurement of 10 attack subs—two guided-missile destroyers, two guided-missile frigates, and an oiler.
The NDAA includes a statute mandating the Navy maintain 11 aircraft carriers and 31 amphibious warfare ships with at least 10 being LHA/LHD “big deck” ships. The Navy wanted to retire a line of LHA/LHD ships and fall below that 31-amphib fleet requirement. The Marines opposed it.
Congress not only sided with the Marines, but included $1.9 billion to fully fund construction of a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship that the Marine Corps lobbied for and the Navy didn’t request.
$600 Million for Ukraine
While Ukraine must wait until 2024 to secure $61 billion in aid the Biden administration is seeking in its stymied $106 billion supplemental request, Kyiv will receive at least two years of funding for the next two years under the defense bill.
The NDAA appropriates $300 million in both FY24 and FY25—$600 million—to the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) fund.
Some House conservatives oppose funding Ukraine’s defense, claiming it is embroiling the United States into war with Russia and draining taxpayers already on the hook for the government’s $34 trillion debt.
Mr. Rogers said Ukraine allocations will be audited by a special inspector general.
Mr. Roy called it “pretty extraordinary” that the House in July voted to defund USAI “and, yet, we are authorizing it here. For the life of me, I do not understand why this is how Republicans think we should end the year, heading out for Christmas.”
Partial UAP Disclosure Act
The NDAA partially incorporates the proposed UAP Disclosure Act, which calls for an independent board to review and release records related to unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) collected by federal agencies and shared with commercial entities.
The board would resemble the one that sifts through JFK assassination-related records under The Collection Act of 1992.
“We should do the same with UAPs,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y), who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).
The NDAA amendment “for the first time [requires] the national archives to gather records from across the federal government on UAPs [with] a legal mandate to release those records to the public,” he said.
The amendment falls short of the bill, Mr. Rounds said. To “obtain recovered UAP material or biological remains that may have been provided to private entities—and hidden from Congress and the American people—we’re lacking oversight opportunities,” he said.
A Major Naval Treaty
The NDAA ratifies the newly-signed U.S., Australia, and UK (AUKUS) agreement, a trilateral treaty the Pentagon says will foster “game-changing defense advantages in building, deploying, and jointly operating attack submarines.”
Under the pact, Australia will purchase up to five Virginia-class attack submarines, a future generation of submarines will be built in the UK and Australia with U.S. tech support, and submarines for all three will be built and overhauled in Adelaide, Australia.
The FY24 budget sells three Virginia-class subs—at least one new—to Australia in the 2030s before Australian-built submarines enter service in the 2040s.
Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) said AUKUS is what the FY24 NDAA “will be remembered for.” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) called it “crucial in deterring China and strengthening our allies.”
Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) said such keel-to-combat integration has “never happened before,” praising the “very unique and unprecedented step being taken by the three countries.”
NATO Notions and Motions
Through 2023’s first six months, hours were spent in House committee hearings debating, at conservatives’ prodding, the value of United States’ NATO membership, essentially questioning why the 75-year-old alliance exists since without American muscle and American dollars, it wouldn’t exist.
While the United States dedicates up to 4 percent of its annual GDP to defense, many NATO nations shirk that commitment, they said, noting Germany for decades contributed 1 percent GDP to defense.
Mr. Roy’s July amendment “that the U.S. should not continue subsidizing NATO-member countries who choose not to invest in their own defense” narrowly failed, 2018–2012.
Motions to leave NATO, including Rep. Warren Davidson’s (R-Ohio) failed amendment, didn’t get far in Congress, but the FY24 NDAA ensures such motions and notions stay in Congress.
An amendment, co-filed by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), prohibits a president from withdrawing from NATO by executive order without congressional approval.
Missile Defense Upgrades
Since October, U.S. Navy destroyers have knocked down drones and ballistic missiles launched from Yemen by Iran-backed Houthi rebels, and U.S. Army anti-missile batteries have repelled more than 100 drone and missile attacks on Marines and soldiers in Syria and Iraq.
The Pentagon’s increasing demands, and Ukraine–Russia and Israel–Hamas wars, have fostered munitions shortfalls and exposed an urgent need for more missile systems, missiles, and missileers to counter proliferating threats “across all realms.”
The FY24 NDAA earmarks more than $70 billion for theater-range, tactical missile defense, primarily the MIM-104 Patriot missile, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor, and Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system.
It includes $30 billion for five new 90-man Patriot units; six THAAD units; and seven newly Aegis-equipped warships, bringing the number to 60.
The Pentagon says the package will send a $50 billion “demand signal” to domestic industry and spur investment in munitions and production lines.