Putting Muscle in Clinton's Proposed Defense Hike

Report Defense

Putting Muscle in Clinton's Proposed Defense Hike

January 25, 1999 10 min read
James Anderson
Visiting Fellow

The declining readiness of U.S. military forces has become so acute that even President Clinton has been forced to acknowledge it. Last September, in the waning days of the 105th Congress, the chiefs of the armed services testified during a contentious hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the steadily deteriorating state of the armed forces. During this widely reported hearing, Senators took the Pentagon and the Administration to task for starving the armed forces of the resources needed to carry out the unprecedented demands being placed on them, including the open-ended Bosnia mission that devours approximately $2 billion in scarce defense dollars each year. Under verbal fire from worried Senators, the chiefs agreed that their soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines could no longer be asked "to do more with less."

The Administration responded with a request for additional defense funding for fiscal year (FY) 1999. The 105th Congress added approximately $8 billion to the defense budget account, which represents the first real increase in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1985.

Whether this requested increase represented an embattled President's one-time response to strong criticism over his defense policies or a sustainable change of course remains an open question. No one will know for certain until the President formally submits his FY 2000 budget request to Congress in early February.

In his State of the Union address on January 19, President Clinton said, "It is time to reverse the decline in defense spending that began in 1985."1 News reports indicate that the President will ask for an estimated $110 billion in added spending over the next six years, including a $12 billion increase in FY 2000.2

On January 2, 1999, President Clinton pledged the "start of a six-year effort that will represent the first long-term sustained increase in defense spending in a decade."3 Although this initiative points defense spending in the right direction, it nonetheless falls far short of what is needed to reverse more than a decade of reduced expenditures. Congress needs to move with dispatch to strengthen the President's proposal with defense budget increases that are both meaningful and sustainable.

The President's proposals to increase defense spending should be evaluated against the backdrop of recent congressional funding debates and U.S. security commitments. Five points merit special emphasis:

  1. The President's proposed increase is significantly less than what the Joint Chiefs of Staff requested when they testified before Congress in September. President Clinton is asking for an estimated $110 billion in new spending over the next six years. But last fall, the nation's senior military officers asked for nearly $150 billion, over 30 percent more than the President's proposal. On January 5, 1999, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the service chiefs reiterated their assessment that the defense budget should be boosted by $17.5 billion in FY 2000 and approximately $150 billion over the next six years.

  2. Only one-third of the proposed $12 billion increase for FY 2000 represents "new money" for defense. A sizeable chunk of the President's proposed $12 billion increase will flow from lower-than-expected inflation and fuel costs, savings that ordinarily are returned to the Treasury. There is no guarantee that similar savings will be realized in future "out year" budgets. Inflation and fuel costs vary over time and are unlikely to remain as low as they are today. The President's initiative also includes $2 billion to extend the open-ended commitment of U.S. troops to Bosnia.

  3. The President's proposed defense spending increase includes a pay hike. Reportedly, $2.5 billion of the President's proposed defense budget will be used for a pay raise of 4.4 percent for 1.4 million service personnel. The President also aims to provide additional pay hikes for mid-range officers and non-commissioned officers, and to restore retirement benefits from 40 percent of basic pay to 50 percent.

Certainly, service personnel should be compensated for their service to this country; in this sense, the proposed pay increases are long overdue. But a pay increase alone will not resolve the services' recruiting and retention problems. Past efforts to stem the exodus of pilots by offering them financial incentives largely failed. The frantic pace of operational deployments under this Administration has taken a severe toll on morale, and surveys reveal that far too many service personnel are leaving the military because they have lost confidence in their senior military and civilian leaders.

  1. To fund his proposed future defense budgets, the President assumes significant savings from congressionally authorized base closings. The President is expected to propose two more rounds of base closings, in 2001 and 2003, to help fund his proposed hike in defense spending. Even if Congress authorizes another base closing commission--and this is far from certain, given the divisive struggle over the last round of base closings in 1995--the savings will be quite modest. The estimate of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Henry Shelton that base closure savings could amount to $15 billion over the next five years appears wildly optimistic. Before Congress approves additional closings, it should carefully consider the long-term implications of further reducing the nation's military infrastructure. Once lost, military infrastructure is not easily recovered.

  2. Neither the White House nor Congress has developed a credible plan to meet the Pentagon's long-standing procurement goal of $60 billion annually. In recent years, the Pentagon has spent less than $45 billion a year on procurement. The Congressional Budget Office has referred to the slump in funding future weapons systems as the procurement "holiday."4 Unless the defense budget is increased well beyond the President's request, this "holiday" will be extended, starving tomorrow's military forces of the weapons systems they will need in the 21st century.

In considering the defense budget for fiscal years 2000 and beyond, Congress needs to balance short-term readiness concerns and longer-term force structure requirements. Funding readiness accounts at the expense of modernization accounts guarantees that tomorrow's military will be ill-equipped to accomplish its assigned missions.5 On the other hand, if defense spending is shifted disproportionately to modernization accounts, the readiness of today's force will suffer. At present, neither short-term readiness nor long-term modernization accounts are adequately funded. Overall, the procurement shortfall presents a greater danger to U.S. security.

Taking these five considerations into account, the President's proposed increase appears quite modest. At best, the proposed spending hike will temporarily slow, but not stop, the slide toward reduced combat capabilities. Left uncorrected, this decline will undermine the ability of the United States to honor its security commitments and treaty obligations. Therefore, Congress must develop a credible plan for sustained increases in the defense budget.

To restore U.S. military capabilities to a level commensurate with U.S. security obligations, Congress should consider bolstering the President's proposed defense spending increase from $12 billion to $20 billion in FY 2000. In addition, Congress must prioritize defense spending to meet the military's most critical procurement requirements.6

Procurement requirements should reflect the range of threats the United States and its allies will face in the next century, including hostile powers armed with ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction, states capable of conventional aggression, and unconventional forms of warfare that include international terrorism and "cyber" attacks.

Increased funding should be targeted to:

  • Protect against missile attack. Funding for national and theater missile defense programs should reflect the growing threat of ballistic missile attack as detailed by the congressionally mandated Rumsfeld Report, which was released in July 1998.

  • Improve ground force capabilities. The United States must maintain and improve its ability to defeat any conventional opponent on the battlefield, whether in the Middle East, on the Korean peninsula, or in any other theater. Specific ground force modernization programs that merit enhanced funding include advanced tactical missiles, field artillery systems, attack helicopters, tanks, anti-tank missiles, armored fighting vehicles, and battlefield sensors.

  • Restore loss of naval power. The precipitous decline of combatant ships must be reversed for the United States to maintain its status as the world's preeminent naval power. Special attention should be devoted to enhancing Navy and Marine Corps amphibious capabilities for projecting forces ashore. This effort will require greatly improved countermine, anti-submarine warfare, and long-range naval gunfire capabilities.

  • Maintain control of air and space. The U.S. military must maintain its ability to dominate air and space to support ground and naval forces as required. State-of-the-art communications and surveillance satellites; advanced fighter, attack, and tilt-rotor aircraft; and sophisticated air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles should receive top funding priority. Also important are bombers, support aircraft, and specialized platforms capable of highly demanding missions, such as counter-terrorist strikes and hostage rescue operations.

  • Increase strategic mobility. The ability of the United States to protect its vital security interests overseas requires aircraft and ships that are capable of lifting large numbers of personnel and equipment abroad on short notice. These strategic lift capabilities, which would include Navy and Army pre-positioning programs, will require increased funding.

To restore U.S. military strength through increased defense spending, Congress either will have to raise the spending cap or designate offsetting cuts in domestic programs. At present, the White House has given no hint that it is willing to do either. It is unclear how the Administration will reconcile its proposed increases in defense spending with spending caps imposed by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.

If Congress and the President are indeed serious about providing sufficient military funding, they will need to reopen negotiations on raising the spending cap. Given the projected budget surpluses, it is reasonable for Congress to consider spending increases well beyond the President's recent proposal.

In his January 2 radio address, President Clinton asserted that "When we give our servicemen and women a mission, there is a principle we must keep in mind. We should never ask them to do what they are not equipped to do, and we should always equip them to do what we ask. The more we ask, the greater our responsibility to give our troops the support and training and equipment they need."7

No one would disagree with this statement. The real question is whether Congress can hold the President to his word to develop a credible plan to restore U.S. military strength. That is a significant challenge because the defense budget has been declining, in real terms, since 1986. Under President Clinton, defense spending has fallen to its lowest level since 1948 as a percentage of the nation's gross domestic product.8

Heritage analysts have long advocated greater defense spending to reconcile the gap between U.S. security commitments and military capabilities.9 The President's proposed increase in defense spending is a half step in the right direction. But to be effective, increased spending must support a national security strategy that defends vital national interests.

For example, increasing the annual budget for national missile defense will not reduce U.S. vulnerability to missile attack unless it is matched by a presidential commitment to deploy such a system as soon as technologically practical. Today, the program to develop a national missile defense is hamstrung by the Administration's commitment to the defunct Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Increasing the defense budget will not automatically improve U.S. national security unless the Administration curbs its penchant for deploying combat forces on peacekeeping assignments, such as its open-ended commitment in Bosnia. Peacekeeping deployments invariably degrade the ability of combat forces to execute their assigned combat missions.

James H. Anderson, Ph.D., is a former Defense Policy Analyst in The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.



2. See, for example, Bradley Graham, "Military: Budget Will Meet Top Needs," The Washington Post, January 6, 1999, p. A23.

3. President William Jefferson Clinton, national radio address, January 2, 1999.

4. See, for example, Robert D. Reischauer, "Planning for Defense: Affordability and Capability of the Administration's Program," testimony before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, 103rd Cong., 2nd Sess., March 16, 1994.

5. Readiness funding usually refers to military personnel and operations and maintenance expenditures.

6. Both the Quadrennial Defense Review in 1997 and National Defense Panel in 1997 failed to achieve this goal.

7. Clinton radio address, op. cit.

8. Historical Tables, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 1999 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998), pp. 42-49.

9. See, for example, Baker Spring, "Will Clinton Pay the Price for America to Remain a Global Power?" Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1083, May 16, 1996.


James Anderson

Visiting Fellow