Inside Washington, defense budget watchers and pundits predict sharp cutbacks in the Department of Defense (DoD) budget. Since President Donald Trump’s Defense Budget Submission (PB) has been sent to Congress, the congressional budget process is determining DoD spending for FY2021.The institutional wisdom predicts that the money spent on domestic COVID-19 relief will put pressure on defense spending and result in reductions. But this logic ignores the importance of the threat-based National Defense Strategy (NDS) that identifies Russia and China as America’s strategic competitors.
According to news website The Hill, as described in the recent article “Defense budget brawl looms after the pandemic,” Democrats believe the COVID-19 crisis will prompt some “rethinking of national security,” meaning less money going to the Pentagon. Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Adam Smith (D-WA), who has been an opponent of nuclear-modernization programs in the FY2021 PB, would consider the “nuclear budget” a target for cuts but told The Hill that that entire “defense portfolios are ‘all on the table.’”
In the digital magazine Breaking Defense, Mackenzie Eaglen, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, discussed the impact of the Coronavirus on the defense budget, saying, “I think the budget comes down sooner rather than later.” In the same article, Eaglen said that “(t)here’s going to be an impact across the board …There probably will be a total relook – at even the NDS fundamentals, and what mission is going to have to go – in response to this.” She suggests that the review of the NDS should be done “with an eye to downsizing.”
Downsizing what? What “fundamentals” have to go? Will China and Russia no longer be Great Power competitors? Maybe we can talk them into downsizing. And what about the rogue regimes of North Korea and Iran? Will they agree to suddenly change their regional objectives? According to the NDS:
“North Korea seeks to guarantee regime survival and increase leverage by seeking a mixture of nuclear, biological, chemical, conventional, and unconventional weapons and growing ballistic missile capability to gain coercive influence over South Korea, Japan, and the United States.”
In the Middle East, Iran is exerting its influence over its neighbors and creating instability. The country continues to be the chief sponsor of global terrorism and persistently develops a network of proxies to do its dirty work.Will North Korea and Iran stop their mischief to accommodate U.S. budget issues? I think not.
Defense budgets are built to support the NDS, and the NDS is not developed to meet some abstract notion of a budget.
There have been times in America’s recent past when budget reductions have been mandated, and the consequences have been terrible for maintaining U.S. national security. The accompanying graph portrays two decades of defense budgets. The base budgets, on the bottom of each column, pay for operating forces, procurement of equipment and services, military personnel, as well as research and development for modernization.
Following the defense buildup after the 9/11 attack and the involvement of two geographically displaced wars, the Obama administration signed into law the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). The BCA established arbitrary budget caps that came with salami-sliced cuts to all programs if the budget caps were exceeded. As the chart reflects, the defense budget was significantly reduced during Barrack Obama’s presidency, severely impactacting force readiness.
In a 2018 article for the Center for American Progress website, “Trump’s Defense Budget,” Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the center and former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, said the BCA “reduced projected levels of spending by $406B.” According to the military Chiefs of Staff:
“…this undermined readiness and the nation’s armed forces to deal with their current challenges and prevented the United States from dealing adequately with the increasing military capabilities of Russian and Chinese strategic competitors.”
The BCA eviscerated the supply of spare parts and put Marine Corps aviation at reduced readiness levels: 50% for MV-22 Ospreys; 55% for F/A-18 Hornet carrier-based fighters; 61% for Marine Harrier vertical takeoff and landing fighters. The Navy reported delays in carrier maintenance, jeopardizing U.S. naval defense of sea lanes.
Tweaking the NDS to accommodate arbitrary defense budget limitations always ends with a future administration scrambling to meet America’s national security needs with exceedingly large defense budgets. President Trump received BCA relief from Congress and increased the defense budget to regain capabilities lost over the previous five years. Congress should fulsomely fund the DoD to support the National Defense Strategy.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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