In 2018, a congressionally mandated panel of defense experts convened to evaluate the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy issued an ominous warning about the defense-spending crisis caused by years of political dysfunction in Washington. The consequences, the commission warned, would be “measured in American lives, American treasure, and American security and prosperity lost.”
President Biden seems not to have heeded the panel’s advice, though he appointed one of its members, Kathleen Hicks, as his deputy secretary of defense. The panel recommended that the U.S. boost its defense spending by 3 to 5 percent over inflation each year; the White House’s newly announced budget proposal for fiscal year 2022 allocates only $715 billion to the Pentagon, which is actually a slight decrease from FY 2021 when factoring in inflation.
As the U.S. prepares to end its involvement in Afghanistan, curtailing the growth of defense spending might seem to make sense, but to believe that you’d have to ignore what’s happening in the rest of the world.
For several weeks, defense planners’ extant warnings about an eventual Chinese invasion of Taiwan have been coming into sharper focus, with two top admirals warning that such an attack could occur sooner than most people expect. Meanwhile, Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops on its border with Ukraine, unnerving U.S. officials so much that Secretary of State Blinken was dispatched to Brussels for the second time in a month for consultations with the Ukrainian foreign minister and European leaders, and a former NATO supreme ally commander openly speculated about the degree to which Beijing and Moscow are coordinating their military-pressure campaigns.
In short, every aspect of the current assault on the U.S.-led world order vindicates the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which aimed to begin reorienting the U.S. defense establishment away from Afghanistan and Iraq and toward “long-term strategic competitions” with China and Russia. The Trump-era document also explicitly called for building a military capable of fighting a conflict with Beijing or Moscow while simultaneously “deterring opportunistic aggression elsewhere.”
The Biden administration says that its budget proposal actually advances these goals, and in its official request to Congress states that it prioritizes “the need to counter the threat from China while also deterring destabilizing behavior by Russia.” But back in 2018, the panel of defense experts, which lauded the aims of the NDS, expressed skepticism that the Trump administration could meet the strategy’s goals without a drastic increase in funding after years of congressional neglect. The panel members wrote at the time that the administration’s budgetary plans “do not fund a level of military capacity and capability adequate to defeat either adversary should war occur while deterring other enemies simultaneously.”
It’s worth noting that that White House budget proposals rarely, if ever, become law in anything like their original form; they are, above all else, an expression of the administration’s budgetary priorities to Congress. But that makes lawmakers’ reactions too them instructive, and this case is no exception.
Unsurprisingly, Republican hawks on Capitol Hill are outraged at the Biden administration’s proposal. Senator Mitch McConnell and four of his colleagues last week sent a letter alleging that the plan “undermines Washington Democrats’ tough talk on China and calls into question the administration’s willingness to confront the Chinese Communist Party.” For all the steps that Biden has taken to shore up U.S. diplomatic support for Taiwan and confront Beijing’s malign behavior, the senators have a point.
Biden has also drawn fire from his left flank, with Senator Bernie Sanders expressing his “serious concerns” about the budget request and Representative Ro Khanna calling it “disappointing.” A letter to Biden signed by dozens of progressive lawmakers had previously called for a “significantly reduced” Pentagon budget.
Much of the media coverage surrounding the request focused on the fact that the president failed to placate either camp, which might lead some to think that he hit some sort of sweet spot that allows the U.S. to confront China and Russia at a lower cost. But while neither side is happy with the White House proposal, only the hawks are right.
The problem with the progressive argument against increased defense spending is that it relies on vague appeals to the sentiment that the current budget is too high. In another letter, Representatives Mark Pocan and Barbara Lee revived an all-too persistent talking point: “We must remain focused on combating the coronavirus and not on increasing military spending that already outpaces the next 10 closest nations combined.” It’s an easily digestible and thus politically potent message, but it fails to respond to those who would argue that such a level of spending serves U.S. strategic goals.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Fareed Zakaria tried to do just that, asserting that the current level of U.S. military spending far exceeds what is necessary to combat China’s military aggression. “America’s ‘edge’ over China is more like a chasm,” he wrote, taking into account Washington’s qualitative and quantitative superiority when it comes to aircraft carriers, fighter jets, overseas bases, and military outlays. He also argues that “Bigness is not a substitute for brains,” and that a large budget doesn’t make up for the misuse of funds, such as the Pentagon’s wasteful pursuit of the failed F-35 fighter jet.
The claim that the U.S. maintains an edge over China is true in absolute terms, but false when it comes to a potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific. Not only has the People’s Liberation Army consistently come out on top of U.S. forces in Pentagon war games, but it has cultivated the precise capabilities that it needs to overwhelm U.S. forces during a conflict in Taiwan. Zakaria cites U.S. dominance in a number of fields, but he fails to acknowledge that the PLA Navy is now the largest in the world by number of ships, and that Washington’s ability to overcome Chinese anti-aerial area-denial capabilities is unclear.
Although Biden’s budget request pays lip service to deterring potential military action by Beijing in the Pacific, lowering the defense budget still wouldn’t enable the U.S. to meaningfully meet that objective, Elbridge Colby, the Trump Pentagon official who played a leading role in crafting the NDS, said on Twitter. Even cutting commitments in Europe and the Middle East, the U.S. would likely have to raise spending to “keep pace” with the CCP’s ambitions, he wrote.
While there is significantly wasteful spending at the Pentagon, there’s no guarantee that gutting the budget would do anything but hamstring America’s national defense posture. To flip Zakaria’s formulation on its head: Smallness is not a substitute for brains, either.
Progressive lawmakers may not be happy with the budget proposal, but by reducing defense spending in real terms, the Biden administration seems to have hewed closer to their priorities than to what Hicks and her fellow panel-members advised in 2018.