Smith: Coronavirus Should Spur Fiscal Responsibility, Defense Industry Action

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told reporters April 7 the coronavirus pandemic will put more pressure on the armed forces to make smart investments and cut down on wasteful spending as the U.S. faces flattening budgets and tough economic times ahead.

Budgetary reviews that help the Pentagon save money will become even more important, Smith said. But he stopped short of discussing particular programs that could be pared back to fund new approaches to military capabilities or to spend that money on pandemic response. Congress is capping total national security spending, including for DOD, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and others, at $740 billion in fiscal 2021.

“They’re arguing that we’re not going to have as much money as we’d like to have,” Smith said of the Defense Department. “Rather than spending all of our time complaining about what we don’t have, let’s plan for making the budget work within a realistic framework. … I think those conversations will accelerate because economically, we’re not coming out of this for a while.”

As the House and Senate Armed Services Committees head into the process of crafting the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill, it’s possible those considerations will lead lawmakers to focus more heavily on upgrades to information technology and networks than on traditional weapon systems.

Smith’s plan is to get bill text for the 2020 policy bill ready for markup by May 1, then set it aside until lawmakers can debate the merits in person, potentially over the summer. He doesn’t expect the National Defense Authorization Act will be scaled back as a result of the pandemic, but suggested it’s increasingly unlikely that the NDAA will become law by the start of the next fiscal year on Oct. 1.

“It is more complicated to juggle all of that when you’re not in regular contact with all of the other members, but we’re going to work through it and press forward,” he said.

Among the typical policy discussions about war in the Middle East, defense acquisition, nuclear weapons, and more, Smith is now juggling concerns about how to protect the military from the coronavirus without jeopardizing national security, using the defense industrial base to pump out resources that can help the country tackle and recover from the pandemic, and shoring up the defense supply chain.

He called for ramping up production of virus test swabs so widespread testing can help identify who should be isolated, who can work, and who is immune, as well as for more protective equipment to shield Americans from the COVID-19 illness. Broad testing can protect everyone from Army infantrymen to Boeing engineers, and DOD’s successes in that area can apply to the general public as well until a vaccine is ready, he said.

“We don’t need to mass-produce an MRAP, or a tank, or aircraft carrier, we need to mass-produce cotton swabs. We ought to be able to figure that out,” Smith said. “I would love to find ways to use existing structures within DOD to take a leadership role.”

Some of that could be addressed through wider use of the Defense Production Act, which helps companies reorient their production lines in times of need, as well as additional pandemic-response and economic stimulus packages on Capitol Hill.

“What I would be interested in in the next package is anything we can do to help fund … upping DOD’s role in helping with the production of the testing equipment and other things we need to respond, and then the industrial base issue,” Smith said. “[Are] there ways we can help DOD make advance payments to help our industrial base, especially the small and medium-size manufacturers that may have a hard time staying in business through this?”

He cautioned that DOD will have to balance asking companies to manufacture protective equipment with ensuring they can still make money on their regular projects.

Smith also complained that because the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Health and Human Services are spearheading pandemic response, DOD and its suppliers are not acting proactively enough in their support role to those organizations. He praised efforts like the Army’s work to find a vaccine but said the military needs to do more.

“I feel very strongly that we have missed some opportunities here because none of the [parties] have been forward-leaning enough,” he said. “They are taking a more process-oriented, slow-moving approach here that I think is inappropriate.”