The Outlook for US Defense Spending
I am surprised by the vigorous hand-wringing this summer over the prospects for defense spending in a Democrat-dominated government beginning in January 2021. There’s every indication that the Democrats who may come to office next year with meaningful power over defense budgets subscribe to a bipartisan consensus that it is leveling off in real terms, just as planned in the Trump Administration’s defense program for 2021 – 2025. Recent indications to the contrary are misleading; worse, they distract from what matters much more about this year’s election and the outlook for defense spending.
Last month’s partisan rancor over the Pentagon’s budget has come to naught. On the left, the Sanders/Pocan amendments that would have reduced by 10 percent the national defense authorization for 2021 were defeated by wide bipartisan majorities that would have been still larger but for the implausibility of the motions’ passage. From the right, off-the-record “experts” raising alarm among investors about imagined plans to reduce annual Pentagon budgets to $550 billion—an implied rate of reduction not seen since the end of the Korean War—succeed only in reminding us of how easily rank expediency sometimes passes for insight on Wall Street. By contrast, the summer’s telling indicator of the outlook for defense spending lies instead in the strikingly bipartisan $740 billion defense authorization bill that Rep. Adam Smith brought to the House floor. Not only did the bill receive a 56-0 vote out of the Armed Services Committee, but Chairman Smith also chose to name it in honor of the committee’s retiring ranking member, Rep. Mac Thornberry.
More to the point, it is hard to find anything in the views of Vice President Biden and his campaign advisors or of the Democrats who lead defense committees on Capitol Hill to suggest they harbor plans to reset the defense-budget outlook. Politico even associated Biden with the slogan “Boost the defense budget” in its tally of presidential candidates’ positions. What one does find among Democratic views of defense policy, however, is a conviction that China poses a profound challenge to vital US interests, the essential premise of today’s historically high peacetime defense budgets but a view that stands in clear contrast to President Trump’s ambivalence over China’s military-strategic importance and his peculiar admiration of President Xi.
The defense budget is not impervious to our fraught politics and economy, but no political realignment that could deflect today’s bipartisan consensus on US defense spending is likely to emerge before the mid-term elections of 2022. If the next Administration and Congress fail quickly to staunch the health and economic catastrophe of the coronavirus pandemic, a progressive wave could well roll into Congress in January 2023 with a platform that prioritizes Americans’ at-home lives and livelihoods over America’s leadership role in the world. Or, the mid-term election could activate revanchist “Tea Party” sentiment to anchor Republican recalcitrance against Democratic governance with the familiar practice of trading off the Pentagon’s budget to blunt domestic-spending initiatives and contain taxes. Familiar? In the five budget years of the Obama presidency after Republicans won control of the House in 2010, the congressional defense appropriations reduced the Administration’s budget request for DoD by a total of $115 billion.
Against the backdrop of today’s bipartisan consensus, the more significant difference about defense spending between the two parties is over prospects for the productivity of those dollars: How much national security can each provide with a $740 billion defense budget? Where Democrats, in the words of former Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy, believe the military-technological competition with China “must be DoD leadership’s top priority,” Secretary Esper spent the week he released this year’s defense budget defending the Administration’s redirection of $4 billion from DoD’s procurement accounts to fund the President’s border wall. Where Democrats, in the words of Biden’s former national security advisor Colin Kahl, would put alliances and partnerships “at the top of the agenda”, Secretary Esper recently acknowledged that it will cost billions of dollars not currently in DoD’s budget to redeploy US forces out of Germany in response to President Trump’s determination that its government is “delinquent.” Facing flat budget growth, the Pentagon will require strategic focus, not distraction and ambivalence, and alliance relations which leverage US defense spending, not compound its costs.
If there’s hand-wringing worth doing about politics and defense spending, it would be better put toward building calluses against the hard work of increasing the productivity of defense dollars than polishing old chestnuts about how Democrats are soft on defense.