Details of the administration’s 2018 defense budget request will be revealed on Tuesday. But, based on the “skinny budget” released in March, we already know the broad outlines of the request.
Basically, we can expect a $603 billion request for the Department of Defense, with the White House trumpeting it as “one of the largest increases in defense spending.” Yet $603 billion represents only a $16.8 billion dollar increase over the Obama administration’s meager planned defense spending for 2018.
So much for major defense rebuilding.
Perhaps the most heartening thing we can expect from the request is a follow through on the administration’s expressed intent to seek the repeal of the defense budget caps set by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Set at $549 billion for FY 2018, the defense caps have been both disruptive and destructive.
To contain federal spending, the Act tied defense spending to other “discretionary” spending — a purely political arrangement. By demanding a one-for-one trade between domestic and defense spending, President Obama effectively held defense funding hostage to increases in spending for domestic pet projects for much of his tenure in the White House.
A rapidly deteriorating global security situation subsequently forced Congress to resort to “off book” Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding in an effort to preserve some semblance of U.S. military readiness. At the same time the national debt grew by $3.9 trillion — from 66 percent to 75 percent of the GDP — due to the rapidly (and automatically) rising costs of entitlement programs.
But the OCO gambit is not only fundamentally dishonest as a budget practice; it has been woefully inadequate to “provide for the national defense.” The U.S. military — in both size and readiness — has shrunk to historically low levels. The arbitrary defense cap must be repealed.
In its place, Congress should adopt one overall spending cap for all discretionary spending. This would force prudent congressional deliberation over federal priorities and facilitate the fiscally responsible shift of funding from pet projects that are outside the proper purview of the federal government toward the nation’s core constitutional function: national defense.
Congress already took an important step in this direction with its May Omnibus. By breaking with the Obama-era one-for-one defense-domestic link, Congress has established that defense funding should be determined without consideration for domestic projects. Their funding needs are unrelated.
Naysayers downplay the poor state of the military. But those who deny the existence of readiness problems are contradicted by the repeated testimony of dozens of senior uniformed and civilian military leaders.
Those leaders categorically report that today’s military is desperately overtaxed and under-resourced. As the Heritage Foundation’s Index of U.S. Military Strength reports, today our armed forces would be severely challenged to execute our defense strategy with the current force.
Encouragingly, Congress took a positive step in May, providing much of what the Pentagon asked for in its March budget amendment. The Omnibus spending bill provided increased operations and maintenance funding and resources to acquire 12 more F/A-18 E/F aircraft, 11 more F-35 fighters, a DDG-51 destroyer, and 58 additional Army helicopters, among other essential pieces of hardware.
Initial reports indicated that the omnibus would accommodate only half of what the Pentagon had requested. But when the dust settled, it turned out that the appropriators were able to address more like two-thirds of the requests through some adroit budgetary maneuvering.
Now, Congress needs to act decisively to start restoring our depleted military. A $603 billion budget for 2018 might be enough to stop the immediate deterioration and cuts in forces, but it will certainly not be enough to reverse the ravages already experienced.
Defense spending needs to be put on a higher path — one that ultimately leads to: reaching the Navy’s requirement for 355 ships; rebuilding the nuclear triad and comprehensive missile defense; fielding the F-35 fighter in a reasonable time-frame; developing new fighting vehicles for the Army, and raising troop levels to the point that our men and women in uniform can defend our national interests without experiencing a crushing operational tempo or the risk of mission failure.
Over the last five years, an increased operational tempo combined with limited resources has forced the military to adopt the concept of “tiered readiness.” This means that forward-stationed units and those closer to deployment receive more resources and training at the expense of other units' readiness.
The results are appalling. In the case of the Army, only one-third of their active Brigade Combat Teams were ready for contingency operations in fiscal 2016. Other services are in similar predicaments.
Some might argue that military rebuilding should wait until the new administration completes its defense strategy review. But that argument overlooks just how far the military has sunk in terms of size and capability.
The military is in such a deep hole, there is no reasonable danger that, by starting to rebuild now, the nation will “overshoot” the target and acquire more capability than it could possibly need.
Moreover, the clock is indeed running. With each passing day, our adversaries improve their capabilities and demonstrate greater hostile intent. Delay only digs the capability hole deeper.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his House counterpart, Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), have both laid out well-conceived and executable plans to begin to rebuild the military. They estimate the cost at $640 billion in 2018.
The Heritage Foundation has proposed a 2018 funding level of $632 billion. It includes proposals for defense reform and savings to help restore our military’s strength and punch.
By embracing any of these proposals, lawmakers would demonstrate that they take the duty to provide for a common defense quite seriously. Lip service is not enough. We must begin to provide our men and women in uniform the equipment and resources they need to defend our country.
Congress must hear and heed the Pentagon’s candid voice in the upcoming budget debates. And lawmakers must then act to begin rebuilding our shriveled military now.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 5/23/17