When it comes to the U.S. military’s budget requests, the promise of more — dollars, people and capital assets — in the distant future is always present. But the White House is doing the armed forces no favors by continuously submitting late budgets to Congress, then demanding they get their funding on time at the start of the fiscal year in just over six months.
Nor is the administration helping those in uniform by sending over requests well below inflation alongside pay raises significantly above the request. This causes internal imbalances in defense spending and a robbing of other accounts to cover the cost of professionals.
Congress will clearly have to bail out the military again and pay the full costs of inflation while confronting head-on the “Terrible ’20s” tri-service modernization crunch.
In its rollout briefing, Pentagon leaders touted this year’s request in superlatives: It has the largest procurement budget ever, the largest research and development budget in history, and the most money ever dedicated to space. In a statement accompanying the request, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called it “the most strategy-driven request we’ve ever produced from the Department of Defense.”
But slogans are not enough as the strategy-resource mismatch widens.
Superlatives can be a good and bad thing. For instance, even though the fiscal 2024 budget request to buy equipment is the largest, it simply had to grow to even have a chance of meeting the pace of elevated inflation.
In other cases, the superlatives that characterize this budget are helpful, such as that which pertains to munitions. The Pentagon request, as Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks has noted, “procures the maximum amount of munitions that are most relevant for deterring and, if necessary, prevailing over aggression in the Indo-Pacific.”
Taking a page out of Ukraine’s book, the Pentagon is looking to buy a lot of things that go boom. It’s smartly embracing multiyear procurement for munitions across the services. Next year the Pentagon will aim to secure such contracts as the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile—Extended Range, the Standard Missile-6 and the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile. The Defense Department is also hoping to house the planned multiyear contracts for these munitions under what it’s calling a “Large Lot Procurement” program that will apparently “improve the efficiency of missile procurement.”
But despite claims that this is a “procurement budget,” it is not, with nominal growth coming in at less than 4% in the procurement account. There are needed bumps in spending, however. For example, the B-21 bomber would see a 41% increase in funds to shift into low-rate initial production; and the Army will replace the Army Tactical Missile System with the Precision Strike Missile, jumping from 42 to 110 new missiles. In addition, the Air Force will grow spending for the Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile, increasing procurement dollars from just $2.8 million this year to $544 million in FY24, a near 200-fold increase.
Despite select good-news stories, the budget still sees the U.S. military shrink and age overall as a result. In a budget briefing, Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord stated that the budget is focused on “making our military more capable, not making it larger.” The military must do more than win the war, should it occur; it has to deter and compete every day below the threshold of conflict. A smaller military means less presence, which in turn means a lessened ability to deter and compete.
While a forcewide problem, shipbuilding offers an illuminating example of the ever-shrinking military. Last year, the Biden administration requested funds to build just eight new ships. This year it’s continuing that trend by looking to construct only nine new battle force ships, none of which are amphibious warships, despite Congress’ push to fund them.
The United States will never catch up to China’s 340-ship fleet while building only nine ships a year. At the same time that the Navy is looking to keep shipbuilding budgets nearly flat, it’s also asking Congress to get rid of about a dozen ships, two of which were just commissioned in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
Congress expected the Navy to have put forth a much more ambitious shipbuilding request, one which reflects the immense importance of maritime missions in the priority theater of the Indo-Pacific. Our shipbuilding plans should be a signal to our allies and enemies alike that we mean business when it comes to resourcing our strategy. Sending over another status quo budget in this era of great power competition signals a lack of seriousness.
Further, the supposed increases to procurement as well as research and development will take a hit if inflation isn’t properly taken into account. Last year, the Biden administration submitted a defense budget that came in well under raging inflation, sharply cutting into the Pentagon’s buying power. This request continues wishful thinking with a wildly optimistic projection of 2.4% inflation. The projection will surely again be wrong given that the Pentagon’s preferred inflation index recently neared 7%.
In failing to adequately account for inflation yet again, the Pentagon has teed up Capitol Hill to save the day. Congress attempted to do so last year, but was unable to cover the full costs of unpaid or under-budgeted inflation, meaning that these are still due on top of this coming year’s inflation, not to mention the need for real growth.
It is now up to Congress to own the defense budget and maybe add its own superlatives (hint: most new ships ever built?); correct the administration’s mistakes; and build off of what the request gets right. Congress can start that effort by passing appropriations on time and matching funds to train and equip the force along with proposed pay increases.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.