5G Could Make a Bloated Pentagon Budget Bigger

Progressives and fiscal conservatives don’t agree on too much these days when it comes to the federal budget. Progressive lawmakers have pushed for programs like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and tuition-free college that fiscal conservatives say cost way too much money. Fiscal conservatives have advocated for spending cuts and federal program reforms that progressives say would do harm.

One area where some fiscal conservatives and progressives agree, though, is that the nation’s largest bureaucracy — the Pentagon — could be doing less.

The latest defense policy bill passed by Congress authorized $730 billion for the Pentagon for fiscal year 2020, which ended on September 30. Nearly 10% of that total ($71.5 billion) was for an Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account that seems to exist for the purpose of funding almost anything but overseas contingency operations. In recent years, the account has become something of a slush fund, derided by members of both major parties.

Despite the persistent efforts by some progressives and fiscal conservatives to get the Pentagon to do and spend less, lawmakers and Pentagon officials often find ways to, well, do more.

The latest example is a proposal floated by the Department of Defense’s Defense Information Systems Agency to create, own, and operate its own 5G cellular network. Far from reducing the size and scope of Defense operations, this proposal would have the Pentagon intrude in a space where nearly all of this century’s most promising innovations have come from the private sector.

Here are just three reasons this proposal should concern conservatives, progressives, and independents alike.

THE PENTAGON BUDGET NEEDS TO BE SMALLER, NOT LARGER

National Taxpayers Union (NTU) and many of its allies on Pentagon budget issues have argued for years that lawmakers should right-size the Defense Department’s budget, but the pandemic has underscored the need for the Pentagon to do less.

As R Street Institute’s Jonathan Bydlak and I put it in a recent op-ed for Politico:

For years, Congress overinvested in the Pentagon in an attempt to prevent potential attacks on our shores, while failing to prepare for other existential risks that would threaten our prosperity and way of life.

Instead of spending hundreds of billions of dollars over the past two decades on failing legacy programs (like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Littoral Combat Ship) and new layers of bureaucracy (like the Space Force), Congress could have spent a fraction of that amount on pandemic preparedness while building a more fiscally responsible federal budget.

It makes no sense for the Pentagon to take over a function and responsibility whose jurisdiction lies with the FCC, especially when the department should be downsizing rather than upsizing.

Groups like NTU have long stressed the need for reducing the Pentagon’s budget and applying the savings first and foremost to deficit reduction. The Pentagon’s 5G proposal would move in the opposite direction. The precise costs for a nationwide network are unclear, though potentially large. Unfortunately, Defense Department officials have been evasive thus far, writing in response to a question about potential costs that the RFI does “not specifically address funding issues” or that they have not yet determined the costs of a Pentagon 5G network.

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office even critiqued the entire federal government’s 5G strategy just a few weeks ago for failing to discuss costs. Specifically, they wrote:

…the strategy does not explicitly discuss what it will cost and does not include any cost estimates either for achieving individual goals or for implementing the strategy as a whole. Additionally, the strategy does not include information on the sources and types of resources required, such as federal, state, local, or private resources.

Before the Pentagon moves forward with a rumored “request for proposal” — or worse, a no-bid contract — they owe it to Congress and the public to discuss the potential costs for their plan. Otherwise, it’s another example of mission creep that will serve taxpayers poorly in the long run by making the Pentagon budget larger instead of smaller.

THE PENTAGON MAY BE STEPPING ON THE FCC’S TOES

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an independent agency with five commissioners appointed by the president and confirmed by the US Senate, is “responsible for managing and licensing the electromagnetic spectrum for commercial users and for non-commercial users including: state, county and local governments.”

A recent CNN report indicates that the Pentagon’s 5G plans may run afoul of FCC jurisdiction over spectrum management. CNN’s Jake Tapper wrote that Defense Department lawyers think the Pentagon does not have the proper authority to “[lease] or [sell] off its spectrum,” and that the FCC would instead be responsible for that process through “independent bidding.”

It makes no sense for the Pentagon to take over a function and responsibility whose jurisdiction lies with the FCC, especially when the department should be downsizing rather than upsizing.

THE PRIVATE SECTOR IS BEST POSITIONED TO DELIVER 5G

The most troubling element of the Pentagon’s 5G nationalization plan is that it could interfere with ongoing private-sector efforts to rapidly develop and deploy 5G across America. Ironically, this has national security implications, given policymakers’ significant concern over China’s leadership role in 5G development around the world.

If, indeed, domestic 5G development is critical for America’s national security and its global economic competitiveness, then the Pentagon needs to do one thing above all others: get out of the way. Nearly 20 Republican US senators recently made a similar point in a letter to President Trump, and several lawmakers introduced legislation that would effectively halt the Pentagon’s aggressive 5G plans.

Whether you’re a fiscal conservative concerned about Pentagon spending, a progressive advocate worried about Defense Department bloat and mission creep, or simply a consumer looking forward to faster and more reliable tech products and services enabled by 5G, the Pentagon’s plan to nationalize 5G should concern you. The best thing for the Pentagon to do would be to scrap their plans and not move forward with an RFP. If they insist on overstepping their bounds, then Congress must step in — and could do so ahead of its passage of the FY 2021 defense policy bill.

Andrew Lautz is a Policy and Government Affairs Manager at National Taxpayers Union (NTU). He leads NTU’s work on the Pentagon budget, government oversight, budget process reform, and more.