House Passes National Defense Authorization Act, Debates ‘Star Wars’ Sequel

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Publication date: 
3 June 2016

Last month, the House passed its version of the annual defense policy bill. The legislation contains various controversial components, including a provision which directs the Missile Defense Agency to begin development of a space-based missile defense system.

By a vote of 277 to 147 last month, the House passed its version of the fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual defense policy measure which is considered a “must pass” bill. The Senate begins floor consideration of its own version next week. The White House has threatened to veto the House bill, issuing a lengthy statement detailing the administration’s objections.

The behemoth-as-usual bill clocks in at over 1,500 pages, and its accompanying committee report is just over 700 pages. Two sections of particular interest are the Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) provisions in Title II and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) provisions in Title XXXI. The bill also includes the "Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act" in Title XXXIII. This language has already been included in other bills, but lawmakers at times attach the same provisions to multiple bills to increase the chance that they make it into law.

Workforce concerns

“The committee is aware of growing concerns across the nuclear security enterprise regarding the ability to attract and retain first-class technical, administrative, and managerial talent,” reads one of the first sentences of the committee report’s section on NNSA. The committee goes on to encourage NNSA to think more creatively about workforce management and to consider offering more opportunities for workers to take sabbaticals, rotate to other agencies, enter the agency later in their careers, and perform more “meaningful work and training” prior to acquiring security clearances.

The report also highlights two new programs which were designed with workforce development in mind: the Prototype Nuclear Weapons for Intelligence Estimates Program and the Stockpile Responsiveness Program (created by the fiscal years 2013 and 2016 NDAAs, respectively). The committee notes that these programs can help attract and retain weapons scientists and engineers as well as give them more opportunities to exercise design skills that they cannot exercise through the Stockpile Stewardship Program alone. Arguing that these programs are underfunded in the president’s budget request, the committee authorizes an additional $12 million and $93 million for each, respectively.

The committee also expresses concerns in the report about the health of the Department of Defense (DOD) laboratory workforce. In particular, after emphasizing the negative impacts of conference travel restrictions on defense laboratory personnel, the committee encourages DOD to ensure the more flexible conference travel policy it adopted in Sep. 2015 is implemented consistently across the department.

Return of the debate about space-based missile defense

Just over 33 years ago, President Reagan gave a speech outlining his vision for a comprehensive missile defense system capable of intercepting Soviet nuclear missiles. The resulting program—the Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed “Star Wars” for its proposed use of space-based interceptors—was the subject of much study and controversy. A study group convened by the American Physical Society (APS), an AIP member society, concluded in 1987 that at least a decade of intensive research would be required to make an informed decision about the feasibility of using directed energy weapons for missile defense. A 2004 APS study also weighed in on the feasibility of various approaches to missile defense, including space-based interceptors.

Debate over space-based missile defense is now reemerging in Congress. The House bill contains a provision which requires the Missile Defense Agency to “commence the planning for concept definition, design, research, development, engineering evaluation, and test of a space-based ballistic missile intercept and defeat layer to the ballistic missile defense system.” It also stipulates that next year’s budget request include a “detailed budget and development plan” for these activities under the assumption that there would be an initial demonstration of the technology in orbit by 2025.

Rep. Trent Franks citing a forthcoming study by the Hudson Institute during his argument in favor of developing a space-based missile defense system. (Photo credit – C-SPAN)

This provision was adopted during the Strategic Forces Subcommittee markup, and there was an unsuccessful attempt to strike it from the bill during the Armed Services Committee markup (debate on the amendment occurs from 3:52:30 to 4:12:25). During the full committee markup, ranking member of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee Jim Cooper (D-TN) argued against the provision by citing testimony from the director of the Missile Defense Agency given during a recent budget hearing:

[Admiral Syring said] ‘I have serious concerns about the technical feasibility of the interceptors in space, and I have serious concerns about the long term affordability of a program like that.’ … We should be for anything that protects America that will work, but we should not be for pipe dreams and science fiction, and no one is better position than Admiral Syring to be a judge of this. … This is a momentous step that the subcommittee took on very little discussion, very little information, [and] in direct contradiction to Admiral Syring.

The White House echoed these feasibility and cost concerns in its statement opposing the overall bill: “There currently is no requirement for a space-based intercept and there are concerns about the technical feasibility and long-term affordability of interceptors in space.”

The sponsor of the provision, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), defended it as follows:

In memory of some of the same arguments that were made many years ago when Ronald Reagan proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative, they called it science fiction. They called it ‘Star Wars’ derisively. And yet today, because of his insight, because of the willingness to consider what we could do, we have a limited missile defense capability in this country. … In the face of growing threats posed by unstable actors and increasingly belligerent great powers, it’s our moral duty to oppose them on every front, and now that includes space.

Franks also argued that a “robust yet limited constellation” would cost about $26 billion over 20 years (in contrast to a $300 billion cost estimate cited by Cooper) and that recent studies suggest there are ways of lowering the costs further.

Other highlights

The bill and committee report contain numerous science and technology-related provisions which may be of interest. Below is a summary of some of these provisions.


  • Special hiring authority: Makes permanent a special hiring authority used often by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to recruit and retain scientists and engineers.
  • Lab quality improvement: Codifies and expands the responsibilities of the Laboratory Quality Enhancement Program, noting that it is an important source of ideas for improving the laboratory workforce.
  • Retention of STEM capabilities: Expresses that it would be imprudent for DOD to achieve mandated headquarters staff size reductions by decreasing the number of STEM employees.

Nuclear Energy / Weapons

  • Cold fusion: Citing “recent positive developments in developing low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR)” and efforts by other countries to develop LENR technology, directs DOD to brief the committee on the state of U.S. LENR research.
  • Small modular reactors: Directs DOD to conduct a life-cycle cost assessment of using small modular reactors to power military installations.
  • Plutonium production: Cautions NNSA against modifying its plutonium pit production strategy without Congressional approval and criticizes the budget request’s out-year funding profile for these activities as inadequate.
  • Low-enriched uranium for naval reactors: Restricts funding for development of naval reactors capable of using low-enriched uranium (LEU) and directs DOD, the Department of Energy, and the State Department to brief Congress on the benefits of establishing a dialogue with France on developing LEU-fueled naval reactors.
  • Lab re-competition: Discusses the upcoming contract competition for certain NNSA labs.


  • Rare earths: Citing the findings of a 2016 Government Accountability Office report, expresses continuing concern about supply chain risks for programs requiring rare earth materials.
  • Gender reporting for STEM grants: Noting deficiencies in tracking of grant recipient gender identified in a 2015 Government Accountability Office report, directs DOD to report on its efforts to improve demographic data collection.
  • Innovation clusters: Encourages DOD to support regional innovation clusters involving small businesses and non-traditional contractors.
  • Medical photonics: Encourages DOD to continue supporting medical photonics research.
  • Nanomaterials: Urges DOD to do more to transition nanomaterials research into combat applications.
  • Precision metrology: Citing the increasing importance of manipulating materials at the subatomic scale, encourages the Air Force to further support development of precision measuring tools.
  • Commercial weather data: Directs DOD to establish a pilot program to assess the feasibility of using commercial weather data to support DOD requirements.
  • Weather forecasting model: Expresses concern that the Air Force did not perform enough analysis before deciding to transition to a U.K.-developed weather forecasting model and requests a briefing on the service’s weather forecasting strategy.


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