ANALYSIS — Ever since then-Defense Secretary James Mattis unveiled his National Defense Strategy in January 2018, Pentagon planners have been reciting, mantra-like, the need to grow the defense budget by 3 to 5 percent annually. And that growth needs to be in real terms, above inflation.
Anything less would put the U.S. at risk of losing a potential conflict with resurgent Russia and rapacious China.
But if you look at the future years projections submitted along with the Pentagon’s 2021 request, that kind of growth is nowhere to be found. Where did the National Defense Strategy go?
To be fair, Congress set the Defense Department’s 2021 topline at $705.4 billion when it struck a two-year budget deal last summer. On paper, that’s an increase of only $800 million over 2020. But it’s an actual decrease once you factor in the $8 billion of emergency funding Congress appropriated for this year to repair damage to military installations from floods and hurricanes.
Given the circumstances, the Pentagon had two options. Request more money, and argue that a lot more funding is needed in the coming years to prepare for the great power competition envisioned by the National Defense Strategy.
Or, the Defense Department could set its precious game plan aside and start making more onerous choices about what it needs the most.
The president’s budget request does neither.
“The most responsible strategic choice would be to adopt a strategy that’s actually affordable,” says Kori Schake, director of defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s long past time for the Pentagon to do less with less.”
And others suggest that budget consternation could lead to inspiration.
“Budgetary discipline is actually a good thing for the Pentagon, not budget generosity,” says Gordon Adams, who was the Clinton administration’s top budget official for national security. “It’s good for budgets to be constrained in the Pentagon because the services make better choices when they are.”
Then, just as the Pentagon was unveiling its budget, the White House announced plans to repurpose $3.8 billion of military funds to put toward building a wall on the southern border, a pet project — and campaign promise — of President Donald Trump.
This undercuts the Pentagon’s credibility with lawmakers when the military claims it still has unfunded priorities, says Dov Zakheim, Defense Department comptroller under George W. Bush.
“It sends the worst kind of message,” he says. And the challenges that strain the Pentagon’s budget aren’t going away. The department needs to replace all three legs of its aging nuclear triad, which commits a lot of its buying power to the new Columbia-class nuclear submarines, the B-21 stealth bomber and a new ground-launched missile.
In the meantime, the military’s operational tempo is unlikely to slow down in pivotal areas.
If the U.S. pulls back in the Pacific, it cedes the region to Chinese influence, Zakheim says. Exiting the Middle East empowers Iran. And reducing American presence in Europe will only embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“What exactly should we give up? That’s our dilemma,” Zakheim says.
The Pentagon points to the $106.6 billion it wants for research, development, testing and evaluation — its largest RDT&E request ever — as evidence that it is committed to winning a potential high-end fight. But that’s only a $2.1 billion increase over what it received in 2020, and its total investment spending — the sum of RDT&E and procurement — would be $243.5 billion, $4.8 billion less than 2020.
There’s an election-year political calculus to this, says Byron Callan, a defense analyst with Capital Alpha Partners. While the money being reprogrammed for the border wall was slated to be spent largely on weapons being built in Republican strongholds such as Alabama and Texas, demonstrating progress on the wall might help motivate voters in swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.
“I think there’s been a calculation that the wall is more important as a messaging vehicle,” he says.
There’s an obvious disconnect between the president’s rhetoric, which claims that his largesse has provided the Pentagon with more than a trillion dollars and fielded the best military in the world, and the Pentagon’s claim that the need for additional funding is significant and lasting.
Ultimately, the Pentagon’s status quo approach and its cheerful acquiescence to being Trump’s piggy bank for the border wall have turned its budget request into an instrument for the president’s reelection campaign.
From an organization that prides itself on staying out of politics, the country deserves better.