Biden’s first defense budget expands mission without growing resources

Only in Washington is the absence of spending growth often considered a “cut.” Also only in Washington is negative real growth considered a “flat” investment. Yet that is the mainstream view of President Biden’s (rumored) first defense budget — a $708 billion Defense Department (DOD) topline, three points lower than the Trump administration’s projected $732.5 billion for fiscal year 2022 (including mandatory spending). Absent any growth from this year’s enacted defense appropriation, the DOD’s buying power will be coming down between one and two points due to inflation alone.

While some around town have characterized this level of defense spending as Biden’s “Goldilocks” topline amount — given that it is neither the massive 10 percent reduction sought by various members of Congress and coalitions nor the growth advocated by House Republicans in supporting the 2018 National Defense Strategy and the National Defense Strategy Commission — this spending level is far from a fairytale.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks to Defense Department personnel during a visit to the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., February 10, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

It is ironic that there were not enough federal
dollars to dole out to defense as Congress just passed into law a near-two
trillion dollar pandemic relief bill. It is doubly paradoxical that the COVID-19
response was considered emergency money and therefore debt-financed (whereas
most of the defense budget is not).

Not only is the first defense budget of the Biden administration in modest decline, it comes on top of two years of flat spending under the Trump administration. While the three-year “Trump bump” for defense infused significant extra resources above planned spending from 2017 through 2019, the Pentagon has been losing two points of buying power per year in 2020 and 2021, according to the former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in numerous congressional testimonies.

Two points down in 2020, another two percentage points of loss in 2021, and now a budget that doesn’t keep pace with inflation. The outcome is a military that cannot get healthy from the damaging Budget Control Act era — nor one that can effectively deter in three key theaters of the world.

Worse,
this is just the opening salvo. When the official budget is released in May,
according to Pentagon leaders, it will show meaningful reinvestments underneath
the defense topline in President Biden’s stated defense priorities of COVID-19
response and climate change.

See
Sec. of Defense Lloyd Austin’s recent message to the force. In his memo, the
secretary again puts priority one on pandemic relief and response. After
discussing various security threats to US interests, he highlights a focus on
tackling the climate crisis. Sec. Austin talks of important updates to the
military’s wargames and policies, for example. But he also directs the force to
“bolster mission resilience” and deploy solutions that “reduce our own carbon
footprint.”

He
closes with a bold charge to the Defense Department: “Where possible, we will
seek to lead the way for alternative climate-considered approaches for the
country.”

Can
you hear it? That’s the cash register chiming: “Cha-Ching! Cha-Ching!
Cha-Ching!”

Focusing on curbing military carbon emissions is not necessarily bad, but it could easily force significant investment tradeoffs. The Defense Department is responsible for 77 percent of the entire federal government’s energy consumption and it has a rocky recent history with carbon-friendly investments. The Navy’s “Great Green Fleet” is a particularly infamous example. The service chose to power a carrier group with a green-fuels blend that cost about four times more per gallon than conventional fuels — earning bipartisan criticism.

As
such, policymakers will need to carefully track any mission creep or broadening
of responsibility for the military without new authorities, dollars, or
manpower. Yet already, given the rapidly shrinking defense budget slice
available for modernization of the force, it seems procurement will yet again
be the billpayer for other priorities, along with active duty end-strength.

Under the combined pressures of reinvestments and budget cuts, leaders will be hard-pressed to sustain a ready force today, while preparing to meet the challenges of tomorrow. When the Biden administration sends its full budget to Congress in May, lawmakers must be ready to ask difficult questions about the Defense Department’s future and its priorities.