America’s National Security Strategy warns that the risk of conflict between great powers is increasing, but you wouldn’t know it from the current debate over the defense budget.
The debt deal negotiated by Congress and signed by President Biden caps defense spending in 2024 at $886 billion for FY 2024, a 3.3 percent increase. The money allocated for 2025, $895 billion, represents an even smaller increase, at only 1 percent over 2024.
With inflation currently running at around 4.9 percent, these amounts are not enough to keep up with inflation, much less to build a military capable of deterring China from aggression against its neighbors.
So if spending cannot keep up with inflation, policymakers must at least ensure that every dollar is being spent efficiently. For those in Congress interested in increasing the capability and lethality of the military, the first option they should pursue is to look for savings and efficiencies within the defense budget itself.
Policymakers should start by reducing non-defense spending contained within the defense budget, thus allowing the Department of Defense to better focus its spending on direct military capability.
Take, for instance, the decades-long decline in weapons and systems procurement as a percentage of the overall defense budget. Although the defense budget should first and foremost fund direct military capability, we have instead prioritized spending on other objectives such as research and development and operations and maintenance. Of course, maintenance costs usually increase as procurement slows. Today, the military is forced to spend more and more on the upkeep of older and older systems.
Civilian companies such as Delta Airlines and Maersk know this. They choose to replace their planes and ships far sooner than the Air Force or the Navy does, specifically to avoid these rising maintenance costs. The average age of U.S. Air Force fighter aircraft is 32 years, whereas the average age of a Delta Airlines jet is 15.1 years (and even then, Delta gets criticized for its “aging planes”).
It is time for our military to catch up. To that end, any program that has been in the research phase for more than a few years and shows no sign of transitioning to an acquisition program should be carefully considered for elimination. While we always want our men and women in uniform to have the best equipment, the purpose of research should be to provide military capability, not simply to pursue research for research’s sake. The proposed fiscal 2024 budget contains a whopping $145 billion in research and development funding. Much of that would be better spent buying more planes, munitions, and ships.
Better still, those billions—in addition to other misaligned funds in the budget—could be put directly toward the American military’s efforts to deter the People’s Republic of China, which the 2022 National Defense Strategy identified as our most “consequential strategic competitor” for the coming decades. For example, the Marine Corps’ Advanced Reconnaissance Vehicle program and the CH-47 Chinook helicopter program could both be cut to reallocate funding to lines of effort better suited to conflict in the Indo-Pacific.
Such reforms could also free up resources to accelerate this budget’s salutary move to multi-year procurement authorities to buy top-priority missiles. Also helpful would be the loosening of rules that currently limit the share of munitions that private companies (as opposed to the government) are allowed to produce for the military.
Policymakers should also consider contracting and management reforms within the Defense Department, such as expanding hiring and firing authorities for civilian employees, updating the federal regulations on commercial item procurement, and cutting bureaucratic red tape would not only yield savings, but lead to an overall more efficient military.
The same can be said for a new round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), which could result in billions more saved annually. According to one official estimate, the savings from previous BRAC rounds amount to roughly $12 billion annually. Nonetheless, in the face of congressional opposition, the Pentagon has given up even asking for permission to start another BRAC round.
Unfortunately, that’s par for the course in the Biden administration—asleep at the wheel as inflation and government spending continue to spin out of control. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Our government can and should take steps to bring defense spending under control. This is not at odds with having a capable military.
The defense budget deserves the same scrutiny as any other government agency. In fiscal year 2024, defense hawks and fiscal hawks must find common purpose by focusing on improving the existing defense budget. Together, we can move money away from inefficiency and waste and toward increased capability and lethality.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on July 15, 2023