By: David Rogers
A greater commitment to air reconnaissance and surveillance operations for American combat commanders in the field stands out amid all the billions wrapped into the huge Pentagon spending bill to be taken up by the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.
A new $500 million fund is established under the title “Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance” and a greater effort is demanded from the Pentagon to consolidate the planning for these investments now typically split among personnel, operations and procurement accounts.
Indeed, the $500 million itself is best described as only a public marker for a larger investment in intelligence operations squirreled away among various procurement accounts and reflecting the priorities of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), the bill’s manager and chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee.
“This is an issue of knowing what is happening around the world,” Frelinghuysen said in an interview. “I think it is fair to say in the testimony we received in our committee, at times there are different commanders, combatant commanders around the world who are less than happy with the intelligence they need to keep us safe.”
“Those are my two focuses: readiness and ISR. That’s an initiative that came out of a lot of hearings.”
The greater emphasis on ISR operations, which include manned flights as well as drones, is reflected in Frelinghuysen’s 375-page bill report, which was released Monday and, unlike its predecessors in earlier Congresses, devotes a full section to the issue.
“The Committee believes that a strong Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability is a critical component of the Global War on Terrorism,” reads the report. “Accordingly the Committee recommends additional funding for the procurement of several ISR aircraft and also provides $500,000,000 above the request to improve the Department’s ISR capabilities.”
The report language directs Defense officials and the military services to report back to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees with a more detailed plan for the money, no later than 30 days before it is obligated. The stated goal is to force some re-thinking of what the gaps are today in ISR but still give the services flexibility to parcel out the funds as needed to different accounts to pay for pilots, for example, or new air frames and sensors.
For Frelinghuysen, ISR is clearly a signature priority. The New Jersey Republican first took over the defense panel in the middle of the previous Congress upon the death of the prior chairman, Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), in October 2013. Frelinghuysen has since shown a level of independence that surprised some, and the new $578.6 billion bill bears his stamp more clearly now that he has had time to consolidate his position.
Important, too, is his partnership with Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who took over the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee with this Congress. The two men, both from solidly Republican districts, are genuine friends, having first come to the House in 1995. And, along with the younger Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Cal.), who took the gavel at the House Intelligence Committee in January, they appear eager to make their mark as a set of new independent House faces in the national security debate.
Higher profile Senate Republican figures like Arizona Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, still command much more attention. But Frelinghuysen showed flashes of his independence last year when he refused to sign off on a Pentagon request that would have allowed off-budget war-related contingency funds to be used to buy F-35 joint strike fighters to replace Harriers destroyed in a 2012 ground attack in Afghanistan.
The Senate defense establishment was prepared to go along, but Frelinghuysen balked on the grounds that the capabilities of the F-35 were so much greater and the purchase was not truly relevant to the on-the-ground fighting.
“Oh I know. I know,” he says with amusement when it is pointed out that he was the big holdout. “Let me say we have different players now.”
“My classmate here is Mac Thornberry, so he and I have a very good working relationship. We see each other on the floor every day. … And Devin Nunes, brand new chairman of Intel, working very closely with him. Our objective is to have a much stronger defense and more investments in intelligence. So the working relationship is different. … We’re all tight. We see each other a lot at the back rail comparing notes.”
“That doesn’t mean we see eye to eye on everything,” Frelinghuysen added, and as the most moderate of the three, he often faces the greatest challenge in reconciling the needs of his Northeast region and the distribution of funds under the GOP’s budget plan.
Most simply, Republicans have so far insisted on keeping the strict spending caps under the Budget Control Act of 2011, but in the case of defense, the GOP then goes around the same caps by adding billions more than President Barack Obama requested in overseas contingency funds for war-related operations.
It’s not just Obama’s domestic priorities that are then being short-changed — but Frelinghuysen’s own. He is still optimistic that some compromise can be found before the end of the year but knows, too, that he faces the threat of a veto and Democratic defections despite his efforts to write a bipartisan bill.
“We do have a bipartisan bill. I’m not sure what will happen when we get to full committee,” he said. “But certainly on the face of it I think most everybody on the committee is supportive of the direction with which we are going.”
“I think we’re giving the president the resources he’s going to be very happy to have,” Frelinghuysen said. “There’s some debate — it’s not partisan — between members on training and equipping Syrians. There’s some debate on the success of what we may be doing — and it’s not clear exactly what we are doing — in Iraq.
“Things are not going well in Iraq, and I’m not suggesting we’re giving the president the means to put boots on the ground,” he said. “But I’m suggesting we’re giving more latitude and resources that I think in the final analysis he’ll need.”