When Defense Secretary James Mattis took the helm of the Pentagon four years ago, he said he was “shocked” by the state of our military readiness. Our armed forces faced a crisis which was brought on by less money and more missions. Those bad old days may soon be back. The budget plan of President Biden, unveiled last week, will force the Pentagon into the same painful tradeoffs that had hobbled our readiness before.
For fiscal 2022, the new administration has outlined a small increase of $10 billion from the current defense budget of around $700 billion. That increase of less than 2 percent will be eaten by inflation. The inevitable growth with salaries, health care, and the costs of operating the armed forces will rob the Pentagon of even more buying power.
Defense spending increases by the last administration were for restoring readiness. But this readiness is not a “one and done” expense. As former Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work noted, “After fiscal 2020, once the program was brought back into the semblance of balance and readiness had stabilized, the department would have needed year over year budget increases of 3 percent just to maintain structure levels.”
Military leaders and lawmakers know that math and have stressed raising the defense budget by at least 3 percent to remain above inflation. These officials range from Mattis to the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Inhofe, and all the Republican leaders of the House Armed Services Committee. The 3 percent growth mark is viewed as the minimum necessary to maintain the current structure of the armed forces and carry out modernization plans on the books.
If there is one foreign policy item that now has bipartisan support, it is the threat that China poses to the international order. Multiple demonstrations of the intent of China have caused the scales to fall from the eyes of those who once scoffed at the notion of this country as a potential threat. If the administration wants to add to the structure of the armed forces, which it should to meet this threat, or augment the modernization plans, which it should also do, it needs more resources than it seeks.
If the defense budget is not increased, the Pentagon will have few choices to allocate resources to pay for inflation growth. The fastest way to reduce costs is to cut training and defer maintenance. Though these actions free resources in the current cycle, they only push those needs into the future, where they will accumulate and become a much greater problem, like the mold underneath your sink which you do not address.
The Pentagon and the White House also need to drive down the costs of operating our armed forces and the costs of health care. But curbing the defense budget while hiking the demands on our military is a recipe for failure. The public understands the need to spend more on our national defense. A recent survey showed that 74 percent of Americans support increased military spending. Among Democrats, the support falls slightly to 67 percent, which is still a landslide level of approval.
The public senses these challenges ahead for our military and the need to prepare for them. Let us hope Congress does as well. Lawmakers will have to step in and properly fund our military to avoid a penny wise and pound foolish decision that we will pay dearly for in the future.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 04/12/21