A few weeks ago, Breitbart posted an article about President Trump’s defense plan being “in limbo.”
It’s worse than Breitbart said it was. The plan isn’t in limbo; it’s dying.
That’s because of the sequester, a.k.a. the “caps”, a.k.a. the Budget Control Act. The sequester was passed in 2011 and went into effect in 2013. I’ll oversimplify what it does: It automatically rolls back defense spending, and in fact all of the discretionary budget, to a baseline set in the legislation, no matter what is appropriated each year. That baseline, in the case of defense, is $1 trillion less, over ten years, than former secretary of defense Bob Gates thought in 2011 was the minimum necessary for the DOD to be able to defend America’s homeland and its vital interests abroad.
So here’s the problem. The Trump defense plan cannot be executed at the level of the caps, or anything near it. What is needed is what was recommended unanimously by the National Defense Panel three years ago:
‐ Emergency “supplemental” appropriations — one-time payments not added to the baseline — to pay for the backlog in maintenance and training that was cut because of the sequester, to begin buying new equipment from hot production lines, and to signal to the defense industrial base that it should build up for the larger plan. That amount will have to be spread over two years, will probably be upwards of $75 billion, and will undoubtedly be more than it would have cost to maintain readiness in the first place.
‐ Increases in the baseline to at least the Gates budget level; the Gates baseline is $100 billion above the current budget, but the increase will have to be more than that, because since the sequester began defense has been underfunded by almost $400 billion.
‐ Full funding of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. That is the amount Congress appropriates every year for the ongoing missions in Afghanistan and the Middle East; if the OCO account is not fully funded, those operations will have to be supported out of the baseline budget, which would create another shortfall.
Again, all of this will cost more than it would have cost to fund defense adequately in the first place. That’s one of the reasons the sequester was so frustrating. It’s terrible defense policy, but it’s bad fiscal policy as well. It didn’t save money; it just postponed and increased the bill — and the longer the bill isn’t paid, the larger the shortfall will grow.
I am occasionally asked by members of Congress why this extra money is needed. Here is a partial list of the needs of the DOD that are unfunded, or largely unfunded, under the current baseline:
All of the services have serious current readiness shortfalls. In other words, the force is not only unprepared for the future; it’s not ready for its missions today.
‐ All of the services need to increase their end strength; the Army, for example, is dropping to a size smaller than since before WWII. Personnel are expensive because they are very high quality — there is no such thing as a grunt any more — but again, continually operating with an undersized force generates tremendous stress that itself increases cost.
‐ The Navy needs another aircraft carrier, a new missile frigate to counter growing Chinese strength, a replacement for the Ohio-class nuclear submarines, more naval aircraft (or else there won’t be enough planes even for the carriers it has), more amphibious ships for the Marines, and more attack submarines than currently budgeted. (The undersea domain is one area where the United States still clearly has an advantage over China; that advantage must not be lost.)
‐ The Marines need a new landing craft and, as stated above, more amphibs and greater end strength.
‐ The Army needs more and better artillery, mobile cruise missiles, and replacements for many of its tanks and virtually all its tracked vehicles, beginning with the Bradley fighting vehicle.
‐ The Air Force is smaller and flying older airframes than at any time since the inception of the service. It must recapitalize comprehensively, buying out the requirement for its new fighter/attack aircraft (the F-35) and completing the design and build stages for its new bomber and tanker.
‐ The space architecture — the satellites on which both the military and the civilian economy depend — must be replaced and either hardened or dispersed. That will be a huge cost that is currently unbudgeted.
‐ The land-based leg of the nuclear triad — the Minutemen missiles — have to be replaced or upgraded, another enormous additional need.
‐ Ballistic-missile defense, which was cut during the Obama years, urgently needs additional funding. Americans in Hawaii and Alaska, and on the West Coast, would be especially grateful for that.
‐ Research and development should be better funded, particularly in the areas of directed energy and automated intelligence.
This list is off the top of my head. Reasonable people could argue about the urgency of certain items on it; on the other hand, there are other necessary programs, such as additional funding for cyber warfare, that I did not include. In any case the broad picture is clear to anyone willing to see it.
The terrible irony is that, when the conditional sequester was enacted into law, no one wanted to see it go into effect. It was described, from the beginning, as a disaster for American security. Leon Panetta, who was then the secretary of defense, likened it to “shooting ourselves in the head.” In 2012, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigned against it, and none of the leaders of Congress, then or now, will defend it.
In fact, the point of the sequester was to cripple the discretionary budget, including the defense budget. The idea was to create a consequence so disastrous for national security that, to avert it, the Obama administration and Congress would address the real problem with federal spending — the growing gap between what the government collects for and spends on the entitlement programs, which constitute 60 percent of the budget.
We’ve seen how well that worked. Entitlement reform is less likely now than at any time I can remember, and certainly less likely than when the sequester was enacted.
So we now have a defense policy controlled by a budget policy that nobody wanted, that nobody will defend, and that has utterly failed on its own terms.
The sequester has to go, and the caps have to go. But it is impossible to get a legislative repeal through the Senate, and probably the House as well, without Democratic votes, and the Democrats will not vote to increase defense spending without some increase in non-defense spending. Since both parties are still unwilling to address the shortfall in the entitlement programs, that means the deficit will have to go up in the short term to accomplish the president’s defense plan.
In other words, the only possible way to get the funds for defense — unless and until the structural problem in the government’s finances is addressed — is to borrow the money.
That’s not what anyone in Washington wants to hear. But it’s what they need to hear. It’s what, eventually, the government will do; the question is whether they will do it before there is a national-security disaster so great that the effects of it cannot be ignored or excused.
Washington is like a family that has been spending 60 percent of its income on shelter, as a result of which its debt is increasing, even though the rest of its budget has been pared back to the point that it cannot feed its children. The family alternates between ignoring the problem and convening periodic crisis meetings over its finances, where it convulses itself discussing ways to further reduce its food budget.
Such a family needs to get another job to increase its income, or reduce the cost of shelter, or both. And if the family is unwilling to do that, in the meantime the kids still have to eat; and if that means borrowing more money in the short term, that is what the family must do.
I will spare the reader a recitation of the threats currently facing the United States. They are large and growing, all over the globe; and whatever else the Trump administration does, the threats will continue to grow, unless and until America’s leaders resolve that, whatever it takes, America must once again become strong.