National Security & Defense

The House’s Defense Budget Is a Statement of American Weakness

Flight ops aboard USS Ronald Reagan (Photo: US Navy)
Now more than ever, we need a policy of strength based on America’s first principles.

Madeleine Albright said last year, “to put it mildly, the world is a mess.” She was right. The cataclysmic events of the last 18 months – Russian aggression, the rise of the Islamic State and the spread of terrorism, China’s continued military buildup and intimidation of its neighbors, the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East, and North Korea’s ongoing provocations — led many of us to hope that the new Congress would make a major move where defense spending is concerned. Unfortunately, the budget resolutions making their way through both Houses show that Congress has not yet confronted the reality of the risk that is accumulating or of America’s growing weakness.   

I will focus my observations on the House budget resolution approved last week by committee; the Senate budget is just as bad.

‐The House resolution fails, in congressional parlance, to “raise the caps” on defense spending. That means it leaves in place the infamous sequester that is rapidly turning what was the best fighting force in history into a force at high risk of not being able to carry out its missions. Even the day-to-day readiness of the military has been compromised by the defense cuts of the last four years. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter testified recently that readiness would not be restored until 2020 for the Army, Navy, and Marines; the readiness of the Air Force, which was particularly hard hit, will not recover until 2023.

‐No one in the congressional leadership disputes this; in fact, they concede it in principle, because they are selling their budget in part on the grounds that it includes extra money for defense. Unfortunately, the extra funding is, like the president’s budget, hopelessly inadequate. And unlike the president’s budget, it is stuffed into the account for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). OCO funding is one-time money that’s supposed to be used to pay for continuing operations abroad. It can’t be used to stop the disastrous ongoing reduction in force structure — as an example, the Army is headed down to pre–World War II levels — or to support the multi-year procurement programs which are desperately needed to recapitalize the inventory of the services. The Department can’t plan for the future without a stable and sufficient funding line. It’s a bitter irony that those who call the loudest for reform of the Department’s acquisition practices are proposing to fund the Pentagon in a way that makes efficient planning and spending impossible.

‐There is no mystery about what ought to be done. Last year, a National Defense Panel (NDP) was created by statute to review the plans of the Department of Defense. It was co-chaired by former secretary of defense Bill Perry and former CENTCOM commander General John Abizaid. (I was a member of the panel.) To no one’s surprise, it concluded unanimously, and in the strongest terms, that the cuts of the last four years — imposed on a force that was already stressed by years of fighting and had already used up the capital built up during the Reagan years — were a disaster for American security. As I said at the time, the panel’s report was a “stunning rebuke” of America’s defense policy and, by implication, the leaders responsible for it.

As a minimum, the NDP recommended that emergency funds be appropriated to restore current readiness, that the defense budget be restored to at least the level proposed by secretary Bob Gates four years ago, and that the Pentagon develop a plan for the future that is not constrained by arbitrary funding limits imposed without regard for the actual needs of American national security. Those recommendations should have been incorporated into this year’s budget.

‐There is no Constitutional, philosophical, or even political reason not to lift the caps for defense. As I’ve written before, providing for the national defense is the priority constitutional function of the federal government; in fact, it’s the one obligatory function. Article IV of the Constitution states that the federal government “shall protect the States against invasion.” Philosophically, conservatives, liberals, and for that matter even libertarians agree in principle that protecting the country from foreign threats is properly the role of government.  And the American people fully understand that they are not being protected now. Virtually every day brings headlines of new aggression or atrocities, or threats of aggression or atrocities, against America, its allies, and its interests. 

Americans debate vigorously the tactics which should be used against these threats. But they know instinctively what their political representatives can’t seem to recognize: that more options are better than fewer options, that strength is better than weakness, and that in the crises which are surely coming, it will be far safer to have what we may not need than to need what we do not have.

Managing a budget through the House is always difficult. I know that from my own years in the Congress. But the way through difficult times is to go back to first principles. The defense cuts of four years ago, based on no national security analysis whatsoever, violated those principles. They were a terrible and consequential mistake, and they are cracking the foundation of American national security — the ability of its armed forces to deter or at least contain kinetic threats to the American homeland, its vital interests abroad, and its allies.

If the foundation is not repaired, and quickly, the edifice will fall. This budget should have confronted that reality squarely, and offered a sound and straightforward path to a funding baseline that would have restored American strength. What is instead being proposed may be marginally better than doing nothing, but in a messy and risky world, it is nowhere near good enough.

— Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri. He is a senior fellow and director of the National Security 2020 Project for the American Enterprise Institute.

Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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