Threats Rise, U.S. Defense Falls
is telling the world in Europe this week that “America is back” as the leader of global democracies. Sounds good. But China, Iran and
would be more impressed if Mr. Biden wasn’t cutting America’s defense even as he rightly stresses the challenge from the world’s authoritarians.
Unremarked in the White House spending deluge is that its trillions for “infrastructure” include little new for defense. Mr. Biden’s $715 billion Pentagon budget for fiscal 2022 is a 1.6% increase over last year. Adjusted for inflation, this is a cut. The bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission and other experts say the Pentagon needs steady 3% to 5% real increases annually to address threats from “near peers” such as China and Russia.
increased defense spending modestly, but that fillip has passed and spending is still at its modern norm of about 3% of GDP. America is rapidly piling up debt past 100% of GDP while shrinking its defenses.
The brightest budget spots are places where the Administration declined to make matters worse: The Administration didn’t slash the Army; active-duty end strength holds at about 485,000. But the service requested about $3.5 billion less than last year’s enacted budget, in part due to a drawdown in Afghanistan.
The Biden Team also overruled progressive critics and asked to fund upgrades to an aging nuclear deterrent. The anachronism known as the “overseas contingency operations” fund will be folded in the normal budget, a more honest accounting.
But nowhere is underinvestment clearer than in the stormy forecasts for the U.S.Navy. At roughly 300 ships the Navy soon won’t have the size or capability to compete with the more than 350-ship fleet China is minting. In April China reportedly commissioned three warships in a day.
The Navy’s 2022 proposal would hasten the retirement of two cruisers to save money. The Navy would procure eight ships; only four are combatants. The request for the shipbuilding account is down about 3% from last year’s level. The Navy is worried about readiness, particularly overworked carriers, and that a larger fleet won’t be properly manned or maintained, which are real concerns. But that is a case for more investment.
A consensus in Congress agrees the Navy should grow to 355 ships, but the officer briefing reporters on the defense budget conceded that with “a 300-ship navy and a 30-year life, you have to recapitalize at 10 per year and so eight is not going to do it.”
The 355 number is not holy writ, and Pentagon press secretary John Kirby weighed in with the obvious that “a fleet of 355 tugboats” wouldn’t mean much for American defenses. But as many naval experts have noted, what a carrier and a frigate have in common is that they can only defend one sea at a time, and quantity has a quality all its own. There is a narrow window to turn around the decline. Building ships takes years, and the U.S. is deciding today the fleet the country will have if China provokes a maritime conflict in 10 or even 20 years.
The Biden team says it will “divest to invest,” or send about $2.8 billion in old stuff to the bone yard to free up dollars for more modern equipment. As ships and planes age, they become expensive and time consuming to maintain, draining readiness accounts. And the military does need to spend more on innovations like hypersonic missiles.
But new equipment seldom arrives on time or as promised. In any event, proposals like the Air Force plan to retire more than 40 workhorse A-10 bombers are unlikely to survive impact with Congress. The Biden Administration also undercuts its tut-tutting about “hard choices” on spending by marking $617 million for climate change. This money will inevitably be spent in ways that make the F-35 fighter program look cost-efficient.
The responsibility for these budget shortfalls doesn’t fall only on civilian leaders. The case for more resources is tougher to sell to the public when flag officers take shots at cable news hosts over the culture wars or promote progressive books about “anti-racism.” The brass need to be honest about actual threats rather than indulge in woke politics. It took a decade for the military to rebuild after the damage from Vietnam, and decline can come again as Hemingway described bankruptcy—gradually, then suddenly.
Congress will massage the Biden request, and members should level with the American public: A military that is large, modern and ready to fight is expensive. We’ll be the first to endorse military health-care changes or civil-service reform to reduce ballooning personnel costs.
But the choice America is facing is not whether to buy more ships instead of tanks. It is whether to defend itself adequately or pretend to do so while shrinking defense to fund an ever-growing social-welfare state. Adversaries can see the trend even if the White House would rather not acknowledge it.
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