Biden approves record $858 billion US defence spending bill

National Defence Authorisation Act repeals military vaccine mandate and gives pay rise to armed forces

The $858 billion legislation includes a record $816.7 billion for the Department of Defence.  Reuters
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President Joe Biden signed the National Defence Authorisation Act into law on Friday, officially approving a record funding bill for the Pentagon and US defence programmes.

The $858 billion legislation includes $816.7 billion for the Department of Defence, with most of the rest destined for national security programmes within the Department of Energy.

The amount far exceeds defence spending by another nation, and was $45 billion more than Mr Biden had asked for.

According to the National Priorities Project non-governmental organisation, America pays more for defence than the next nine countries combined.

Washington's 2021 budget accounted for almost 40 per cent of the world's total military spending, according to the Institute for Policy Studies.

“The Act provides vital benefits and enhances access to justice for military personnel and their families, and includes critical authorities to support our country's national defence, foreign affairs, and homeland security,” Mr Biden said.

The defence act, which runs to almost 4,500 pages, includes efforts to bolster Washington's support for Ukraine and the Nato alliance, re-emphasises a focus on China and mandates the Captagon Act aimed at combatting the Middle East's drug trade.

“Republicans in the House and Senate worked very hard with Democratic colleagues to make the bill a very bipartisan bill with very little poison pill provisions in it,” Republican Congressman French Hill, who spearheaded including the Captagon Act in the budget, told The National.

The budget's most contentious point was a provision repealing the military's Covid-19 vaccination mandate, pushed by congressional Republicans.

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy praised the provision as “a victory for our military and for common sense.”

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the White House still backs a mandate, even though Mr Biden ultimately signed the bill rescinding it.

Mary Kaszynski, director of government relations for the Democrat-aligned veteran political action group VoteVets, said the repeal weakens military readiness.

“If you have one person who is vulnerable to disease, especially something that's extremely fatal and extremely contagious, that impacts the military readiness of the entire unit. They could be taken out by one case of Covid,” said Ms Kaszynski.

As of December of last year, 98 per cent of the force, including 96 per cent of active duty soldiers, were fully vaccinated, according to the Pentagon.

About 8,000 American service members were “severed” under the mandate over their refusal to comply, something Republicans touted as extreme and unfair.

The Army says 98 per cent of its active duty force had received at least one dose of the mandatory coronavirus vaccine. AP

Congress broadly increased the budget authorisation level by $45 billion over Mr Biden's budget request in part “to address the effects of inflation and accelerate implementation of the National Defence Strategy.”

That includes a significant pay raise for military personnel and civilian employees, with a 4.6 per cent salary boost, and additional funding to address inflation.

“American service members work night and day … They have families, they struggle with inflation just like everyone else, just like civilians. They deserve that pay raise every year,” Ms Kaszynski added.

The bill authorises a total of $12.6 billion to account for inflation impacts alone on purchases; $3.8 billion for inflation impacts on military construction projects; and $2.5 billion for inflation impacts on fuel purchases.

But those hikes did not come without criticism. Mr Biden himself highlighted other areas of concern after he signed the document.

Among them, a section that continues to bar the use of funds to transfer Guantanamo Bay detainees to the custody of certain foreign countries, and another that would continue to prohibit the use of such funds to transfer certain detainees to the United States.

“It is the long-standing position of the executive branch that these provisions unduly impair the ability of the executive branch to determine when and where to prosecute Guantanamo Bay detainees and where to send them upon release,” Mr Biden said.

Progressive Democratic Representative Barbara Lee critiqued the scope of the funding, and petitioned Washington stop “wasteful spending” on a department that “has never passed a single audit.”

The expansive budget also emphasised modernisation and further sharpened Washington's focus on China.

It increased US investments in the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, and authorised the Taiwan Enhanced Resilience Act of 2022, which is designed to increase security co-operation with Taiwan.

The budget also mandates co-ordination between Washington's intelligence community, State Department, and the Pentagon to produce a report for Congress on “the use of online social media platforms by entities designated as foreign terrorist organisations” for recruitment, fund-raising, and the dissemination of radicalising information.

Updated: December 23, 2022, 6:06 PM