On Monday, President Biden requested that Congress fund a $813 billion defense budget for 2023.
Because $813 billion is a lot of money and a nominal 10 percent increase over 2021 funding levels, the Biden administration has trumpeted this budget request as a serious — yet fiscally responsible — increase in defense spending.
Unfortunately for the American people, it’s neither.
The fundamental flaw in both Biden’s defense-spending request and his forthcoming National Defense Strategy is his assumption that “integrated deterrence” — the buzzword of the moment — will allow to the United States to use soft power, alliances, and glitzy technology combined with just a sprinkling of old-fashioned hard power to ward off bad behavior on the part of our strategic competitors in Moscow or Beijing.
And — with Russia and China deterred — we will have bought ourselves the luxury of time and space to “divest to invest.” By retiring legacy weapon systems and capabilities in order to fund modernization programs to meet threats down the road, we can plan for the future while saving money by holding the topline defense budget relatively flat!
Well, perhaps President Biden hasn’t yet noticed, but “integrated deterrence” is undergoing a real-world test drive, and it didn’t actually manage to deter Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Amazingly, our adversaries are not politely agreeing to fall in line with our strategic assumptions.
We may not like it — we may even choose to ignore it — but the United States faces great-power competition in the Pacific and Eastern Europe, along with secondary but serious threats emanating from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, as well as from Islamist terrorist groups. Joe Biden, however, is determined to build a national-security establishment capable of facing down only one of these threats at a time. If “integrated deterrence” doesn’t work and we find ourselves in trouble in multiple regions, Biden’s grand strategy might as well be a shrug emoji.
To compound the problem of Biden’s myopia, the tsunami of non-defense, social, and Covid-relief spending pouring out of Washington has created an inflationary environment where a 4 percent year-over-year increase in defense spending may actually lose ground in real terms.
This, simply put, is not going to get the job done.
In post–Cold War America, it’s simply a myth that the Pentagon has had a bottomless pit of funding from which it can buy new weapon systems and capabilities. The United States, unlike our adversaries or individual allies, has global commitments and interests in two hemispheres, in four oceans, and on six continents. Moreover, in a given year, only about a quarter of the defense budget is spent on procurement, with the vast majority being spent on personnel, maintenance, and benefits such as health care and retirement.
During the last administration, both then–defense secretary Jim Mattis in 2017 and the congressionally established National Defense Strategy Commission cochaired by Ambassador Eric Edelman and Admiral Gary Roughead in 2018 estimated that the Pentagon would need a sustained increase in annual, topline spending of at least 3 to 5 percent — above inflation, year after year — to reverse the relative decline in American power when compared to our adversaries.
Ignoring these sober assessments, Joe Biden proposes that, in 2023, the United States field a smaller Army, Navy, and Air Force and spend less than half as much as a percentage of GDP than Americans did during the Cold War. Is today’s world less than half as dangerous?
Even Democrats, such as Virginia representative Elaine Luria, a former naval officer, recognize the baffling nature of Biden’s plan.
In a remarkable Twitter thread, Luria criticized the Biden administration for proposing to decommission 24 ships, including Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers and Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ships, “11 of which are less than 10 years old,” in order to save “0.5% of their budget.”
“This,” Luria wrote, “along with an anemic building program, will shrink the navy to 280 ships, at the same time they are calling to build a 500-ship Navy. HINT: If you want to grow the Navy, stop decommissioning more ships than you build.”
What would a serious, sustained increase in defense spending of 5 percent above inflation buy the United States?
First, credibility. That the United States has semi-publicly declared that, as a matter of policy, we are only capable of fighting in one theater at a time is a provocative display of weakness. It invites adversaries to coordinate their malign activities. An adequately funded American defense establishment would mean that the United States could formally abandon the foolish, one-war-at-a-time “strategy” of the last decade.
Second, hard power. The United States must invest in the martial capacities that will deter aggression or defeat it if forced to do so.
We need the permanent stationing of a heavy U.S. armored division in Europe, and an Army focused on an enhanced forward-presence mission in conjunction with NATO.
We need an at-least 350-ship Navy built on the backs of submarines and dozens of new, multipurpose Constellation-class guided-missile frigates to replace the underperforming Littoral Combat Ships.
We need an agile, lethal Marine Corps built to complement the Navy in its mission to face down China’s challenge in a primarily maritime theater.
And we need an Air Force rebalanced towards a significant number of long-range, deep-strike bombers and a growing, capitalized Space Force focused on high-end future threats.
Biden’s plan is irresponsible.