Based on an Outdated Defense Strategy, the Senate’s Defense Bill Disregards Constraints Imposed by Record Budget Deficits
On a 25-2 vote last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved $740.5 billion in discretionary defense spending as part of the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Although bipartisan agreement on the NDAA tends to be the norm, it is remarkable that an appropriation on this scale generated relatively little dissent in light of updated budget deficit forecasts. The Congressional Budget Office projects federal deficits to hit a record $3.7 trillion this fiscal year.
The consensus in the Senate is explained to some extent by election-year politics. The NDAA provides members of Congress with an opportunity to return defense dollars to their districts.
Case in point is one of the costlier line items in the bill—a $9.1 billion authorization for more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, which are produced in supply chains spanning more than 307 congressional districts in 45 states. Already the most expensive defense program in U.S. history on account of numerous cost-overruns, the appropriation comes on the heels of a revised Defense Department estimate that the F-35 will require more than $1 trillion for operations and maintenance alone over the next 66 years.
The more significant reason why the Senate bill sailed through, however, is because the Defense Department has not provided Congress with updated strategic guidance. The Senate bill is responsive to goals outlined in the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy.
The National Defense Strategy emphasizes the long-term challenge of maintaining American leadership in great power competition. To that end, the Senate bill creates a new Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) to confront China with a bolstered U.S. military presence costing $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2021 and $5.5 billion in fiscal year 2022. The PDI is modeled on the European Deterrence Initiative, which the Senate bill also fully funds, notwithstanding President Trump’s desire for troop reductions from Germany. The long-term goals animating the Senate bill can be seen as well in its commitment to U.S. “superiority in space”—probably with funding for a new Space Force.
The trouble is that the National Defense Strategy did not anticipate, and therefore, does not account for the constraints imposed by trillions of dollars in spending this year on COVID-19 stimulus.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper indicated recently that the “massive infusion into the economy” from COVID-19 spending would jeopardize military modernization plans. Esper pointed to legacy programs as potential targets for compensatory cuts, but has not provided a roadmap on how to win support for these reductions.
One explanation might be that the Trump administration does not want to spend capital on defense cuts at a time when the president is looking like an underdog in his re-election bid.
While true that substantial defense cuts would test the limits of Washington’s political will, they would not be without historical precedent either. When federal deficits jumped to a then-record $290 billion in 1992, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney proposed a reduction in the defense budget by 25 percent over the next five years. Cheney’s budget proposal set the stage for a decline in defense spending every year between 1993 until 1999, which remained under 3 percent of GDP for a decade.
The reason Cheney was able to reign in the defense budget is that he did not rely simply on appeals for budget belt-tightening. Working with House Armed Services Committee Les Aspin (D-WI), Cheney won bipartisan support for a new defense strategy that outlined how the United States could mitigate post-Cold War threats at a lower price tag. The assumption behind Cheney’s “Regional Defense Strategy” was that the United States should transition from a Cold War-era global strategy to one more focused on regional contingencies as it restored fiscal balances at home. Aspin consolidated support behind this strategy upon his appointment in 1993 as President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense.
If Esper is serious about cutting defense spending, he will need to work with the House Armed Services Committee on an updated defense strategy. The strategy will need to account for the reality that unconstrained federal deficits are a liability in the United States’ quest for a long-term advantage in great power competition—one that Congress must assess as it determines spending levels on defense.
The House NDAA mark-up, scheduled for July 1, is likely to be the final opportunity to lay the groundwork for defense cuts before the November elections.