War Stories

The Incredible Never-Shrinking Defense Budget

One thing Congress can always agree on.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin laughs with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Mark Milley during a break in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the defense department’s budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 17, 2021.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin laughs with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Mark Milley during a break in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the defense department’s budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 17, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/Pool

President Biden surprised Democratic leaders last May when he proposed spending slightly more money on the military than the Trump administration had spent the previous year. Now both houses of Congress—including many Democrats who not long ago had called for cutting defense spending—are getting ready to pass a defense budget that boosts Biden’s proposal by $25 billion.

The measure, which is almost certain to pass both houses by large majorities, would lift the military budget for fiscal year 2022 to a record-busting $777.9 billion—a 5 percent increase over Trump’s final budget of $741 billion.

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This was the sum approved, in a stunningly bipartisan 23-3 vote, by the Senate Armed Services Committee. In the coming weeks, the House committee and the two chambers’ appropriations and budget committees are all but certain to follow suit. (The amount included $740 billion for the Defense Department, with most of the rest funneled to the Energy Department for nuclear weapons.)

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Rep. Adam Smith, who called for cutting the defense budget by $100 billion when he became chairman of the House Armed Services Committee after the Democrats regained control of the chamber in 2018, now admits the winds are blowing in the opposite direction. He told Defense News this week, “The people who want to spend more than the Biden number have built a lot of support, and yes, I think that [$25 billion increase] is a potential bipartisan pathway. I don’t support it, I don’t think that’s where we should go, but at the end of the day, I have one vote.”

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There are a few reasons for this overwhelming endorsement of such a massive increase in defense spending. First, many Democrats believe that it’s necessary to retain support—among moderate Democrats and a few Republicans—for Biden’s massive spending on domestic programs. (This was one reason Biden decided not to cut the defense budget back in May.) Second, in an era when Congress is spending trillions of dollars on COVID relief, infrastructure, child care, and enhanced unemployment benefits, $25 billion doesn’t seem like a whole lot of money. Finally, amid heightened concerns about China’s military expansion, the idea of spending more—even a lot more—on defense is harder to resist.

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However, these concerns—some real, some exaggerated—aren’t being tethered to any analysis. If progressive Democrats were equally lavish when it came to social programs, conservatives and moderates would assail them for “throwing money at the problem.” In fact, they did say that when presented with a $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan. As a result, Biden and key legislators took a close look at the details, narrowed the definition of “infrastructure,” and wound up with a compromise bill that sliced the amount to $500 billion.

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The congressional committees have done no such analysis of what’s really needed for national defense. For the most part, they have merely taken what the Biden administration gave them and said, “More!”

This is not an exaggeration. Every year, the military services—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and now Space Force—submit a list of “unfunded requirements.” These are items that the service chiefs say they need but that can’t be squeezed into the budget limits set by the White House. Smith recently observed (as many others have observed in the past), “No matter how large the budget, there’s always this list of unfunded ‘requirements,’ and it strikes me as simply a forcing mechanism to, no matter what, force money into the system.” Usually Congress takes this game in stride. A few legislators, usually those with less-than-fully-funded weapons manufactured in their districts, fight for amendments to add more money; a few succeed, most don’t.
But this year, they’re almost all poised to win. Nearly the entire $25 billion add-on is devoted to filling those unfunded gaps.

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A full list of congressional add-on won’t be made public until all the committees complete the mark-ups of the defense bill, but the Senate Armed Services Committee released an executive summary of the list. It includes $610 million for six more F-35 fighter jets (in addition to $12 billion that Biden requested for 85 of the planes), $571 million for more F-15EX planes (in addition to Biden’s $1.3 billion for 12 of planes), $746 million for Army combat vehicles (beyond the $1 billion Biden funded for M1 tank upgrades), $1.75 billion for a new destroyer ship (beyond Biden’s $2.4 billion), and $700 million extra for the Indo-Pacific Command (in addition to Biden’s $5.1 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which is shaping up to be a slush fund for less-than-compelling programs that can be rationalized as “required” to contain China).

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At a recent House hearing, Smith asked Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whether any of the items on the unfunded-requirements list were critical for the military’s success in countering China, terrorism, or other threats. Milley replied, “The answer is no, in my professional opinion. If they were critical, then they [would have been] higher on the priority list…in the base budget.”

The precise phrasing of Milley’s response—“in my professional opinion”—was significant. In hearings, legislators sometimes ask a general or an admiral for his “professional opinion” or “military judgment,” as a way of giving the officer an opening to veer from administration policy. The fact that Milley invoked the phrase, without prompting, signaled that he was speaking from conviction, not political obligation.

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It is telling that the Senate mark-up, at least as revealed so far, places limits on just three weapons systems. It bars the Missile Defense Agency from developing a particular system in Guam without first providing a detailed plan. It kills funding for a new aerial refueling tanker, and for an armed reconnaissance plane desired by U.S. Special Operations Command. (However, SOCOM does get an extra $200 million for whatever else its commander thinks is necessary.) It is worth noting that none of these weapons currently exist.

Another telling detail (though this may not survive once the bill goes through all the committee and floor votes): the Senate mark-up repeals language in previous bills expressing a preference for fixed-cost contracts. This is a lavish gift to defense manufacturers that could wind up boosting taxpayers’ bills and corporate profits by billions of dollars.

Regardless of anybody’s estimates of how much we should spend on defense, this sort of uncritical largesse is bad for national security. It discourages discipline and innovation (no need to come up with tighter efficiencies or new ideas for coping with new threats when we’re going to get all the money we want anyway); it sustains bureaucratic support for old weapons that might be unsuitable for tomorrow’s battlefield; it promotes sluggishness and bloat.

Congress is supposed to provide oversight. This is the opposite of oversight.

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