Why President Biden needs to revisit—and reduce—his defense budget

By Lawrence J. Korb | September 7, 2021

An airman conducts post-flight maintenance on an Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bomber at Keflavik Air Base, Iceland, in August of 2021. Photo by Air Force Master Sgt. John Hillier/US Defense Dept

Why President Biden needs to revisit—and reduce—his defense budget

By Lawrence J. Korb | September 7, 2021

In defense, dollars are policy. The federal government cannot execute the national security strategy or wage combat effectively unless it proposes to purchase the appropriate amount of manpower and material. But no matter how much the government spends, it cannot buy perfect security. Therefore, in its annual budget submission, a US presidential administration must make some hard choices on how much and how it allocates its funds.

Unfortunately, with the timing and substance of the fiscal 2022 defense budget, the Biden administration has made several poor choices that do not enhance US security in a cost-effective manner.

First, the administration released its budget to the Hill too late for the Congress to perform its constitutional duties to “raise and support Armies [and] provide and maintain a Navy” in a responsible manner. Releasing the budget on May 28, 2021, a scant four months before the start of the new fiscal year, is the latest that any administration has ever released its budget. Therefore, for much of fiscal 2022, the Defense Department will most likely be operating under a continuing resolution that freezes money at last year’s level. This will prevent the Pentagon, while under that resolution, from spending money to begin any new programs, increase training and maintenance of the force, or even raise the pay of the troops, resulting in inefficiencies and waste.

Second, Biden’s proposal in effect ratifies the massive unnecessary defense buildup that was undertaken by President Trump. In his four years in office, Trump increased the level of defense spending by more than $100 billion, or 16 percent, over the level he inherited from the Obama administration. He did this because he embraced the false assumption that his administration inherited a readiness crisis in our armed forces. This view was debunked by many people, including Gen. David Petraeus. Biden’s request for $753 billion in fiscal 2022 is not only $12 billion more than Trump received in fiscal 2021, but is almost the exact amount that Trump’s outgoing team projected for the coming fiscal year. Moreover, it undermines Biden’s own campaign contention that Trump’s defense buildup ignored all fiscal discipline.

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Even some high-level military leaders were surprised by the Biden embrace of the Trump budget total. For example, on December 2, 2020, in a speech at the Brookings Institution, Gen. Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, predicted that there would be a budget cut under a Biden administration as a result of a struggling economy and the COVID-19 pandemic, which, he argued, the United States must take care of before increasing defense.

Third, Biden continues the Trump plan to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad and in fact increases funding for them. In doing so, he goes against the Democratic Party’s platform, which denounced the reckless embrace of a new arms race; his own national security document; and the advice of nuclear experts like former Secretary of Defense William Perry and Democratic congressional leaders like Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, who all recommended canceling the land-based component of the nuclear triad. In their view, a new, land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (known in Pentagon-ese as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent) is not only unnecessary for deterrence but actually increases the probability of a nuclear war because it would be launched on warning of attack.

In addition, the budget continues funding for a new nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile. This tactical or low-yield nuclear weapon also increases the risk of an accidental nuclear war since the enemy cannot tell if these cruise missiles are nuclear until after they land.

Fourth, the budget proposes to spend more than $12 billion dollars to procure 85 more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters—an increase over the number Trump requested last year (79). Biden did this even though the program is significantly over budget and behind schedule. The late Sen. John McCain called the F-35 program a scandal and a tragedy; Armed Services Committee chairman Smith compared spending more money on the F-35 to pouring money down a rat hole; and former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has argued we should stop throwing good money after bad on this program.

Even though Biden has essentially ignored his own base and embraced Trump’s defense budget levels and priorities, his budget is not receiving any significant support from members of the Republican defense establishment. They argue that the defense budget needs to continue to grow by 3 percent to 5 percent a year in real terms (7 percent to 9 percent in nominal terms) for this country to implement a national security strategy that enables us to protect ourselves against our primary strategic competitor, namely China. In fact, some of these Republicans even claim that China now actually outspends us on defense (although one authoritative estimate suggests that United States defense expenditures are roughly three times China’s.)

To enhance national security, the Biden administration will have to trim an exorbitant defense wish list

Some of Biden’s supporters argue that he does not want to feed into the narrative that Democrats are weak on defense by dramatically reducing the level of defense spending he inherited. That argument ignores a very salient fact: Some of the most dramatic reductions in defense spending by incoming administrations occurred under Republican presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. In fact President Nixon made such significant cuts in defense spending to fund social programs—the Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Amtrak, for example—that liberal stalwarts like Noam Chomsky and Mark Shields have called him the United States’ last liberal president.

Some other Biden supporters defend his fiscal 2022 defense proposal by arguing that this is merely a placeholder budget and that he will make significant changes in the following year’s budget request. But the fiscal 2023 budget will be released during an election year, and it seems unlikely that, given the small Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, he will make major changes that eliminate programs that create thousands of defense-related jobs in districts around the country.

The budget President Biden has embraced is higher in real terms than what the United States was spending during the Reagan administration and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Although I think it unlikely that Biden will present a defense budget next year that makes him our next liberal president, I certainly hope—at a time when a pandemic and climate change demand American attention and funding—that he does.

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