Drone Spending Update: The NDAA

A Shadow UAV is launched during a training exercise at Camp Roberts, CA on June 11, 2016. Credit: Staff Sgt. Ryan Sheldon
A Shadow UAV is launched during a training exercise at Camp Roberts, CA on June 11, 2016. Credit: Staff Sgt. Ryan Sheldon

By Dan Gettinger

In an 85 to 13 vote on June 14, 2016, the U.S. Senate passed the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, bringing Congress a step closer to finalizing next year’s military budget. The NDAA is a policy bill that lays out the projects and priorities within the Pentagon that Congress would like to see funded the following year. Unlike appropriations legislation, the NDAA does not transfer funds to the Department of Defense; rather, it is responsible for specifying budget policy and authorizing spending in certain areas. Like the House NDAA, which passed on May 18, 2016, the Senate’s version of the defense policy bill includes several alterations of the President’s budget proposal, including spending on drones.

The process of drafting the NDAA began immediately following the release of the President’s budget proposal on February 3, 2016 and can take several months (the NDAA for Fiscal Year 2016 was not signed into law until November 2015). The House and Senate NDAA bills are based on draft bills put forward by the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). The NDAA drafts are the result of months of hearings during which members of both committees debate provisions of the President’s budget proposal. Upon leaving committee, these budget “markup” bills were debated on the floors of each house, where they were amended according to congressional priorities that were not raised in committee.

Now that the Senate has passed its version of the NDAA, members of both houses will meet in conference, where they will negotiate the differences between the two versions. The final version of the NDAA and total amount allocated for drones will be different from both the President’s budget proposal and the current bills working their way through Congress. Both of the bills in Congress offer conflicting priorities and visions of how funds should be allocated. For example, while both houses have put forth proposals to add funds to develop an automatic takeoff and landing capability for the MQ-9 Reaper, they are divided on other proposed additions to the Reaper budget. These differences will need to be resolved before a final bill can be voted on and sent to the President.

The debates over the NDAA are a good indication of what could change in terms of drone spending and of the projects that Congress considers to be important. This post compares the House and Senate versions of the NDAA to President Obama’s budget proposal. Here’s what you need to know:

Documents and Resources

  • H.R.4909 – National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (House)
  • S.2943 – National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (Senate)
  • Drone Spending in the Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Proposal
  • Budget Materials – Department of Defense Comptroller


  • Both the House and Senate added $35 million to the Air Force’s research budget for the to integrate an automated takeoff and landing capability on the MQ-9 Reaper. General Atomics demonstrated this capability in 2012 and is predicted to help save on manpower costs. According to Flightglobal, the Air Force attempted to shift funds to supporting the integration of this capability in 2015, but was denied by Congress.
  • The House and Senate differed on other funding items for the MQ-9 Reaper. The House added $14 million in research funding for tactical datalink integration. The Senate, meanwhile, doubled funding for the Special Operations Command Reaper program, adding $14.8 million for procurement and $12 million for research.
  • The House added $29.6 million to the Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle procurement budget for Ground Mounted Airspace Deconfliction Radar. A further $95.1 million was added for additional Gray Eagle systems to the Overseas Contingency Operations budget, a fund designed to support active and ongoing military commitments overseas. No additional funds were awarded by the Senate for the Gray Eagle.
  • The House added $95 million for an additional MQ-4C Triton procurement and $47.5 million for the MQ-8 Fire Scout. Both amounts were allocated from the Overseas Contingency Operations budget. The Senate declined to add more funds for either of these programs.


  • The House and Senate cut funding for the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor system (JLENS). The HASC cut $43 million from the $45.5 million program, while the SASC cut $41 million. The JLENS is a large blimp meant to detect and track cruise missiles aimed at Washington, D.C. Last year, however, it escaped its moorings and floated from Maryland into Pennsylvania. “This isn’t the first time we’ve tried to kill this ‘zombie program’—let’s hope it stays dead this time,” Rep. Jackie Speier, who proposed the amendment to cut funding of the program, said in a hearing.
  • The House cut funds by $56 million for the Navy’s three Mine Countermeasures packages for the Littoral Combat Ship. These cuts could have an effect on the Navy’s ability to purchase unmanned undersea vehicles. Meanwhile, the Senate cut $34.4 million in research funds for the Large Diameter Unmanned Undersea Vehicle because of the concern that the technology has not yet fully matured.

Note on Changes

Although changes to some budget items such as the MQ-9 Reaper are easy to spot, alterations in smaller spending items are harder to identify. The Senate and House versions of the NDAA both include changes to drone projects that are located within much larger budget lines. Without knowing why the changes were made, it can be difficult to tell how specific drone projects will be affected. For example, the House version of the NDAA cut a total of $30 million in funding across four Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) programs, each of which contains drone projects and expenditures.

In the following table, we have included changes to every budget item featured in our report that is impacted by the NDAA, even where the direct connection to drones is not always obvious from the text of the legislation.

[gview file=”http://dronecenter.bard.edu/files/2016/06/NDAA-Changes-Drone-Spending.pdf”]

Policy Priorities

In addition to authorizing funds for different spending items, Congress also adds language to the NDAA that requires DoD to alter its policies in order to address concerns among lawmakers.

  • Section 113 of the House NDAA stipulates that the Secretary of Defense should take steps to mitigate the threat posed by unmanned aircraft to critical facilities and assets. If a drone threatens any nuclear facilities, missile defense or national security space mission facilities, the secretary has the authorization to “use reasonable force to disable or destroy” the drone.
  • Section 151 of the Senate NDAA would require the Air Force to submit a report on the future makeup of the Air Force. In particular, the study would examine the optimal ratio of unmanned to manned aircraft and “game-changing, advanced technology innovations.”
  • Section 876 of the Senate NDAA would require the Secretary of Defense to allocate $50 million towards a new pilot program to explore the acquisition of emerging technologies and capabilities. The Senate is specifically interested in technologies that enable swarming of multiple unmanned air and undersea vehicles, integration of directed energy systems, as well as a fixed-wing, multi-mission drone that can augment the capabilities of fifth-generation weapons (known as the “loyal wingman” project).
  • Section 1053 of the Senate NDAA would allow the Department of Defense to transfer unmanned air vehicles to law enforcement agencies.

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