In a move that will upset some on the left wing of his party, President Joe Biden is requesting $753 billion for national defense, a 1.7 percent increase over President Donald Trump’s military budget last year.
However, as Biden’s Republican critics are bound to complain, he is requesting a 15.9 percent increase in non-defense spending. In fact, while Trump’s last budget cut everything but defense, Biden’s first budget gives the Defense Department—in percentage terms—the smallest increase of any federal agency except for the Department of Homeland Security, whose budget remains about the same as last year.
In short, Biden will sell the defense budget as a middle-of-the-road compromise—which may mean it satisfies many in Congress but may also mean it satisfies few. Some Republicans have called for a 3 percent increase in the defense budget. Some Democrats have called for a substantial reduction. Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has said that annual defense spending could be cut by as much as $100 billion, if smartly done.
Biden’s budget, released on Friday, contains only “top-line” numbers (noting only how much he is requesting for each federal department and agency, with little in the way of detail) and only for “discretionary” spending (omitting mandatory programs such as Social Security and Medicare). This is normal for a new administration, which, barely two months into its term, has had little time to plunge into every item in the federal budget. The full, detailed request will be submitted to Congress later in the spring.
The document does provide a few clues on where Biden wants to take the military. For instance, it cites “the need to counter the threat from China” as the Pentagon’s “top challenge.” So U.S. Pacific Command can expect hefty funding for new combat planes, ships, and submarines.
The budget also puts a premium on research and development into “breakthrough technologies” for “next-generation defense capabilities”—and says these investments will be paid for by retiring old, costly-to-maintain weapons that don’t address emerging threats. Many military analysts foresee a much-transformed battlefield in future wars between major powers—one featuring hypersonic missiles, pilotless planes, cyberattacks, and systems powered by artificial intelligence. Some of these analysts now work in the Biden administration, and, to some degree, the budget reflects their concerns.
There is also a hint that Biden will cut spending on nuclear weapons, but not as deeply as some Democrats would prefer. In the words of the budget document, the administration “is reviewing the U.S. nuclear posture,” but it “supports ongoing nuclear modernization programs while ensuring that the efforts are sustainable.” In plain English, this means Biden will fund some new nuclear weapons on the drawing board, but not all of them, as many analysts, hawks and doves, have concluded that funding all of them—an array of missiles, bombers, and submarines estimated to cost $300 billion over the next 30 years—is not “sustainable.”
The budget states that Biden will fund new nuclear-missile submarines, a program that even most pro-disarmament groups support, since submarines—which roam beneath the ocean’s surface, undetectable, and therefore invulnerable to attack—deter adversaries from even contemplating, much less launching, a nuclear first-strike. Even if an attack wiped out our land-based missiles and bombers, the submarine-launched missiles could deliver a devastating counterpunch.
Nor will Biden be shutting down the production of nuclear warheads or materials—which the Department of Energy handles. That section of the budget assures there will be money for “recapitalization” of the nuclear weapons labs and other facilities “to ensure the [nuclear] deterrent remains viable.” This is also fairly uncontroversial: Most legislators, as well as all the presidents in the past 75 years, believe that, as long as nuclear weapons exist, they should be kept safe and reliable. (Of Biden’s $753 billion request, $715 billion goes to the Department of Defense; the rest is allocated to the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration and a few other agencies doing military work.)
It is a tossup which part of the budget will spark the most intense debates: the slight increase for the military or the much heftier increases for everything else. For instance, Biden is requesting a 23 percent increase for the Department of Health and Human Services, a 15 percent increase for Housing and Urban Development, a 16 percent increase for Interior, a 14 percent increase for the Department of Labor, a 12 percent increase for the State Department, a 14 percent increase for Transportation, a 26 percent increase for the Environmental Protection Agency, and a 20 percent increase for the National Science Foundation, to name a few.
Either way, the budget debate in Congress has always been more theatrics than substance—and this year, with the drastic shifts in spending, the theatrics will be more dramatic than usual. Already, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that Biden has to spend much more on defense in order to confront the threat from China—this, before Biden has revealed how much of the budget is devoted to confronting China.
Nor will the debate take much note of the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report, released on Thursday, which concludes that national security depends at least as much on how well the U.S. adapts to climate change, global migration, the rise of tribalism, and other social, economic, demographic, and environmental phenomena as on precise measurements of the military balance.
Ideally, a budget debate should be less about how much we spend than what we buy. But in another sense, the theatrics about how much we spend are appropriate. The top-line budget released on Friday expresses Biden’s priorities—which is what budgets are supposed to do. (Every federal department could make a case that it “requires” more money than it’s getting.) So let’s have a debate on priorities, on what kind of country we want to be—and need to be, to survive and thrive in the decades ahead.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.