Don’t Skimp on the Defense Budget

Roger I. Zakheim

The Democratic-majority Senate committee tasked with overseeing the U.S. military took the extraordinary step of rejecting a Democratic president’s budget request for the Pentagon. Overcoming Capitol Hill’s reflexive partisan mindset, the committee forged ahead with a bipartisan rebuke, voting 24–1 against a budget request that signaled austerity for the military.

The increase that the Senate Armed Services Committee preferred cannot be likened to the trillions in profligate spending we’re witnessing in Washington. The committee gave the Pentagon more of a bump than a boost by adding to the administration’s budget request $25 billion, a mere 1.4 percent more than the $715 billion the president asked for. Why is that a big deal? Because it allows the military to swim above inflation during a time when inflationary waters are rising. More important, it signals that the threat posed by a notably assertive and authoritarian China cannot be addressed by declining budgets and “tough choices.”

It’s nearly unprecedented in recent history for congressional leaders from the president’s party to raise the administration’s defense-budget request. The move reveals broad cross-party agreement that the Pentagon must remain radically focused on countering China’s objective of making the People’s Liberation Army a “world class” military by the end of 2049. While defense-budget skeptics are correct that the Chinese Communist Party spends less than the United States on its military today, troubling trends suggest this will not be true for long.

Recent analysis reveals that the annual dollar value of PLA procurement is on course to eclipse that of the U.S. military by 2024. This fact takes on more urgency when one considers what China may be planning in the near term with everything it is buying. As Admiral Philip Davidson, the former commander of United States Indo-Pacific Command, told Congress last March, China could be ready to take Taiwan by force within the next six years. Overlay this “Davidson window” with estimates that by 2030 the United States will no longer boast the world’s most advanced fighting force in total inventory value, and you understand why lawmakers chose not to play Scrooge with the military budget.

To be clear, the spending increase is no panacea — and its impact, if enacted, will be more directional than dramatic. It would reverse some of the Biden administration’s planned cuts to procurement funding by sustaining the readiness of naval aircraft and submarines and allowing for the purchase of an additional destroyer. In the near term, this will allow commanders to keep pace in day-to-day competition with the PLA and help deter its adventurism. But it will not deliver the force we need to deter (or, if necessary, defeat) a future, modernized Chinese military.

While the increase puts the U.S. military on a trajectory toward resourcing our national-defense strategy, which is committed to countering China, a military for the future will not emerge from budget bumps alone; rather, it will require some major changes to the way the Pentagon does business. Effective management of R&D dollars, along with a radical reimagining of the Pentagon’s antiquated “program of record” system (the term of art for how the military buys big things), will surely help. Dollars alone will not solve a shortfall of imagination.

Some critics suggest that increased dollars will sustain the status quo and continued dysfunction in the Pentagon, but there is little evidence that budget growth stunts military reform or modernization. What’s clear is that an entrenched bureaucracy that bets on inertia rather than change tends to respond when leaders can reward those who prioritize reform and battle the status quo.

Moreover, a Congress that backs such leadership with the power to use funding as a carrot rather than with the stick of starvation significantly increases the chances of success. Budget reductions do not necessarily bring reform — they simply result in fewer dollars to sustain what is needed today, fewer dollars to invest in the future, and fewer dollars for Pentagon leaders to cajole and reward those otherwise unwilling to let go of platforms and practices from a bygone era. A case in point is the budget shenanigans of the Obama years. Instead of allowing former secretary of defense Robert Gates to leverage his reforms for military modernization, the Obama White House collected those savings to drive defense cuts. This undermined his leadership, reinforced the worst instincts of the bureaucracy, and stifled military modernization.

Will the Senate Armed Services Committee be the exception or the rule for what we can expect of Congress as it rumbles through its annual defense-policy and spending measures? We will know soon enough, as the House will be taking up their defense measures later this summer. With slim Democratic majorities in both congressional chambers, national-security-minded legislators may be able to drive outcomes on Capitol Hill this year. These bipartisan leaders could make the Senate Armed Services Committee a trailblazer. Congress would do well to remember, however, that time is not on America’s side.

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