War Stories

Biden’s First Military Budget Won’t Make Anyone Happy

A request that reflects Cold War–style thinking, with the money to match.

Low angle shot of Biden seen between two military personnel in uniform standing with hands clasped behind their backs
President Joe Biden speaks with service members at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Virginia, on Friday. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden’s first military budget, released on the Friday afternoon before a three-day holiday weekend, is unlikely to please any political faction.

Many of his fellow Democrats will be unhappy that he is increasing defense spending—including on nuclear weapons.

Many Republicans will be unhappy that he is increasing the Pentagon budget by just 1.6 percent—the smallest increase of any federal department.

Nonetheless, hawks of both parties are likely to breathe a sigh of relief that Biden has ignored the pleas of some Democrats to whack the defense budget in order to pay for more social programs. Biden is upping everything, including taxes and deficits, to pay for everything.

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Biden is requesting $754 billion to pay for military programs in fiscal year 2022. This includes $715 billion for the Defense Department, $15.7 billion for nuclear weapons programs in the Energy Department—the same sum approved last year under President Donald Trump—and a few billion here and there in various other parts of the federal budget.

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To what may be the surprise of many, Biden’s budget also calls for full speed ahead on new weapons for all three legs of the nuclear triad—including $2.6 billion for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (the follow-on to the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile), $3 billion for the B-21 bomber, and $5 billion for a new nuclear missile submarine, as well as $609 million for a new Long Range Stand Off cruise missile and $2.9 billion for improvements in nuclear command-control systems. All of these sums equal or exceed the amounts requested and approved under Trump.

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Many Democrats, including Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, have questioned the need for so many new nuclear weapons, especially the GBSD. Some arms control advocates have argued for years that land-based ICBMs are “destabilizing” because they are, at once, most vulnerable to an enemy’s nuclear first strike—and most capable of pulling off a nuclear first strike against an enemy. The theory is that, by their very existence, they create incentives, during a crisis, for one side to launch a first strike before the other side launches a first strike. Supporters of the new GBSD missile argue that Russia has built new ICBMs and, therefore, we must as well. The Biden team seems to have sided with the latter group.

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In what seems to be an effort to reassure the nuclear skeptics on Capitol Hill, the document notes that the budget for nuclear weapons “is not anticipated to exceed 7 percent of the [Defense] Department’s budget” over the next decade. But 7 percent of even this year’s DOD budget amounts to $50 billion—and the overall budget is projected to grow each year from now until 2031.

Biden’s Pentagon is also requesting $20.4 billion for various missile defense programs, despite the fact that very few of them have ever performed successfully in tests. Trump’s last budget spent just slightly more ($20.9 billion) on these weapons.

There may be controversy over the non-nuclear side of the defense budget as well. On the one hand, the Pentagon’s budget-summary statement stresses that much money is being requested for “cutting-edge technologies that could deliver a warfighting advantage to our forces, including artificial intelligence, hypersonic technologies, cyber, and quantum computing, among others.” On the other hand, the line-item budget documents indicate that the Pentagon is also requesting a lot of money for old-fashioned types of weapons that aren’t cutting-edge at all.

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For instance, it is requesting $2.9 billion for a new aircraft carrier, $6.9 billion for two new attack submarines, $2.4 billion for a new destroyer ship, and $1.7 billion for a new frigate. It is also asking for $12 billion for 85 additional F-35 stealth fighter planes (even though problems with that system abound), $1.5 billion for 12 F-15EX fighters, and $2.6 billion for advanced helicopters.

The Army is the one service that gets whacked in this budget—ground battles don’t emphasize high tech as much as modern air and naval combat—but even so, $1 billion is set aside for upgrades to the M1 Abrams tank.

In recent testimony before Congress, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he would also be killing older weapons systems that wouldn’t be suitable for today’s warfare. However, cutting those systems would, all told, save just $2.8 billion.

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The budget makes much of a new Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which will cost $5.1 billion, but this is simply a way of highlighting that the Pentagon now considers China to be the United States’ main military adversary. For the most part, the “initiative” consists of ships, combat planes, and missiles that would have been part of the budget in any case. One new twist is that the missiles include new models that exceed the maximum range allowed by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. (The treaty applied to conventional and nuclear missiles.) Trump withdrew from that treaty; Putin was happy about that, as Russian officers never liked it. It now seems that no one, Biden included, will be pushing to revive it.

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The budget documents also say much about broader concepts of national security—adapting to climate change, fighting COVID, and working with allies. It is worth noting that in the overall federal budget proposal released by the White House earlier on Friday, there was very little mention of the military—even in the section devoted to the Defense Department.

This could be read two ways. In one sense, it indicates that Biden truly does want to move beyond conventional concepts of national security—to place diplomacy, technology, trade, human rights, democratic values, and American jobs closer to the heart of U.S. foreign policy.

In another sense, the scant mention of the military budget has the effect, whether intended or not, of veiling the fact that this military budget is little different from any other military budget. The military establishment, with its Cold War thinking, is still very much in charge.

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