During the 2020 presidential race, then candidate Joe Biden complained that U.S. President Donald Trump had “abandoned all fiscal discipline when it comes to defense spending.” Unsurprisingly, Biden’s first budget—announced in 2021—was a dramatic about-face in fiscal priorities. The proposal increased spending for virtually every federal department except the Pentagon. Congress, for its part, considered Biden’s proposal so deficient that it added an additional $29 billion for defense.

Despite congressional pushback and mounting global threats, Biden’s new budget, announced last week, continues down the same dangerous path. Confronting emerging international dangers will require a dramatic increase in Washington’s spending, and the administration’s proposal is insufficient. The longer policymakers wait to make up this shortfall, the greater the risk the United States runs of operating without the forces it needs to win wars, and the more it tempts autocrats into taking advantage of American deficiencies. As Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine demonstrates, wars themselves—not exercises or training—are the real measure of military capabilities. To guarantee victory on the battlefield, the United States must make sure its capacities far outstrip those of its adversaries.

But Washington’s problems are bigger than money. U.S. policymakers face an intellectual crisis. Their approach to determining the military forces they need has become disconnected from the resources the military receives. The United States not only needs to find greater funding for the armed forces but it also must make sure that its strategy matches the resources it is willing to dedicate to the country’s defense.

SLASH AND BURN

The first major downgrade of U.S. military capabilities since the 1950s came at the end of the Cold War. Between 1989 and 1992, the George H. W. Bush administration developed the so-called base force concept—its attempt to reduce defense expenditures without seriously weakening the armed forces. Bush hoped to cut spending by 25 percent over five years by reorienting the military. Planners shifted from preparing for one apocalyptic war with a Soviet peer to smaller wars against regional powers, assumed longer warning times before conflict, and began substituting rotational forces for troops stationed permanently in bases around the world. The objective was to develop a military capable of fighting two independent major regional wars, with additional units available for reinforcement and a separate nuclear force. These changes produced a smaller military composed of 12 active and six reserve army divisions, 15 active and 11 reserve tactical fighter wings, and 451 ships, including 12 carriers.

Although Bush’s base force reduced spending, it also reduced the demands made on the armed forces. The divergence between military strategy and allocated resources really began with the 1993 “bottom up review”—the Clinton administration’s attempt to justify further reductions in defense spending. The review was still marketed as a way of allowing Washington to fight two major wars at the same time, but in practice, its prescriptions actually meant that major elements of the military would need to be used in both wars. The United States would need to rely on a “win-hold-win” approach—essentially fighting a single major regional war while freezing a second until forces could be shuttled from one to the other. And although the Clinton administration aimed to cut more than $100 billion in defense spending, its strategic goals were more expansive than those of its predecessor. U.S. strategy under Clinton accounted for all the threats anticipated by Bush’s base force while also seeking to address the “new dangers” of nuclear proliferation and sub-state conflict and expanding existing U.S. military missions to include peacekeeping. As a result, the United States’ military budget and its armed forces could not keep pace with the ever-expanding scope of its articulated strategy.

Congressional oversight of the military did little to resolve this mismatch of means and ends. Nowhere was this dynamic more evident than in sequestration—the 2011 Budget Control Act’s requirement that, absent congressional budget approval, agencies would have to make across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending. Sequestration dealt a severe blow to defense—generating a gap between strategy and funding that the Defense Department has not yet been able to address.

Washington must make sure that its strategy matches the resources it is willing to dedicate to defense.

Subsequent congressional failures to pass consistent budgets have exacerbated this mismatch. Instead of appropriating funding on time, it has become routine for Congress to pass short-term continuing resolutions that simply maintain funding at current levels. Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island and chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, estimates the cost of such stopgap measures at $34 billion, as the Pentagon cannot start new programs or stop old ones, provide pay raises, or shift funding to higher priorities. The Defense Department has been operating on continuing resolutions for six months of this year and for a total of 1,443 days over the last 12 years. That’s nearly four full years of time and money that Washington can’t get back.

The last National Defense Strategy—produced by the Trump administration in 2018—also depended on future spending that neither the president nor Congress provided. Executing Trump’s strategy would have required a real spending increase of three to five percent annually over that year’s existing $670 billion defense budget. Such an increase has not been forthcoming. Today, taking the middle range of four percent growth over inflation, a rough calculation puts the 2022 Defense Department requirements at $906 billion. The funding just appropriated by Congress, however, amounts to $728 billion, meaning that the gap between Washington’s strategy and its ability to carry out that strategy is a chasm of $178 billion.

Congress, for its part, requires the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to report annually on the dangers associated with executing the National Defense Strategy. The last several chairmen have warned that the risks of not fully carrying out the strategy’s requirements are rising, even if they said so quietly in public while more stridently in classified settings. But the military has also played a part in allowing the budget mismatch. Although then chairman General Martin Dempsey argued in 2013 that budget cuts would necessarily change Defense Department strategy, he went on to support an unaltered strategy when the Obama administration drastically cut the Pentagon’s budget. Last year, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and the current chairman, General Mark Milley, claimed that the budget “is ample to accomplish things the department wants to do in the coming year.” Left unsaid is whether the budget is adequate beyond the current year.

Despite this growing gap, the Biden administration does not seem poised to limit U.S. strategic objectives. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, policymakers claimed there was no need to change existing strategy since Russia posed only an “acute” threat. But the 82nd Airborne Division is now deployed in Poland, and an aircraft carrier has been dispatched to the Mediterranean—meaning both are unavailable for the so-called pacing threat posed by China. The Biden administration is also incorporating other issues such as global health and climate change into the defense strategy. The Pentagon evidently aspires to square this circle by arguing that so-called integrated deterrence—the Defense Department’s organizing principle for its upcoming strategy—will reduce the demand for military forces by utilizing all elements of national power with exquisite orchestration. In reality, however, such a concept bases Pentagon strategy on forces beyond its control and is no substitute for a well-funded military.

BUILD BACK BETTER?

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell used to say, “Show me your budget and I’ll tell you your strategy.” The Biden administration’s ability to produce a budget that funds its expansive strategy is a test of its seriousness—and it has been found wanting again. Congress had to step in after Biden’s first attempt last year, and his newly released budget asks for $773 billion, which doesn’t even keep pace with inflation.

Congress, by contrast, seems poised to raise the Defense Department’s budget significantly. Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington and chair of the House Armed Services Committee, has said that “the Russian invasion of Ukraine fundamentally altered what our national security posture and what our defense posture needs to be.” A strategy that accounts for Russian aggression in Europe will necessitate more forces and different kinds of weaponry than one solely focused on China. The Pentagon’s own accounting of its unfunded needs from the last budget amounts to $22 billion. Addressing that deficit would be a good place to start.

Restoring U.S. naval capabilities, which have stagnated in recent decades, should be another major priority as the United States moves to confront China. To start, policymakers should take up the Pentagon’s plan for a 500-ship navy and begin developing the industrial base needed to build it. The Pacific is predominantly a maritime theater, and Beijing’s fleet now surpasses what Washington has to defend its commitments in the region. Investing in shipbuilding could also provide some much-needed substance to the Biden administration’s concept of “a foreign policy for the middle class” by creating more jobs at home. Analysts estimate the cost of attaining a 500-ship navy at $34 billion per year for 30 years, totaling over $1 trillion. Making this investment will also result in a valuable expansion of the defense industrial base—the companies that build U.S. weapons and military systems.

Americans have allowed their military to atrophy.

The United States needs to expand the U.S. military to match Washington’s existing claims. The current U.S. military is sized to fight only a single war, as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan revealed. Aligning strategy with reality should therefore be the focus of the defense planning process from start to finish. The price tag will be high: personnel costs for the current force comprise about 25 percent of the Defense Department’s base budget. A force capable of fighting two wars would need roughly double the current number of 1.3 million service members, at a cost of about $160 billion per year.

The Defense Department also needs to adequately fund the construction and maintenance of military facilities and equipment, as the Pentagon tends to underfund or defer these problems when budgets are tight. The current figure for the maintenance and construction backlog is in the neighborhood of $140 billion. These delays have real consequences, including reducing the availability of important equipment and facilities. Navy dry docks, for instance, are more than 100 years old and in short supply (only one can hold a Ford-class aircraft carrier). As a result, U.S. shipyards are limited in how well they can service the fleet. U.S. forces are already too small for the existing strategy; Washington only limits them further by underfunding such logistical operations.

Finally, policymakers need to reckon with the impending wave of decisions about the modernization of existing weapons systems. The majority of conventional and nuclear weapons systems are approaching the end of their service lives, even with extension programs that stretched their use well beyond their original retirement date. Many old systems are also bumping up against technological upgrades designed to keep them functional and interoperable with newer platforms. In 2016, defense analyst Todd Harrison estimated the total cost of developing new systems to replace the old ones at $130 billion across five years. That number has only ballooned since then.

STICKER SHOCK

The changes needed to bring the Defense Department’s budget back in line with its strategy involve a hefty price tag: around an additional $384 billion per year, a figure about 50 percent greater than the current Pentagon budget. Spending and program estimates also typically swell to two or three times initial estimates, and all these figures will need to be adjusted to the actual rate of inflation. As the saying goes, “pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

Defense is expensive. It’s inefficient. But it is an essential insurance policy designed to guarantee that the United States can protect itself, its allies, and its interests. Americans have allowed their military to atrophy, and they urgently need to restore both its reach and its punch. U.S. defense spending in 1953 was 11.3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product; this year, it is 3.7 percent. Washington needs to make up the gap before its adversaries gain too much ground. This should be a wake-up call. The United States must drop the excuses that have led it to so perilously underfund its defense.

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