This week, the Pentagon submitted its annual budget to Congress, requesting $585.3 billion total, including a base budget of $534.3 billion and $50.9 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). The request blew past the spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act (BCA), which limits base spending to $499 billion – nearly $100 billion more than the amount collectively spent by either Europe or Asia on their national militaries. By ignoring the caps, the Pentagon is punting on aligning its ends and means in a coherent, realistic, and effective defense strategy. Despite some important forward-looking programs, the budget also overinvests in weapon systems – like the F-35 and nuclear aircraft carriers – that are designed to fight the last conventional war and are of steeply decreasing utility against emerging threats despite their enormous financial cost. Despite its flaws, the Pentagon’s budget request does emphasize some efficiency initiatives that deserve the support of Congress and would free up funds to be reinvested in developing 21st-century combat power.
By budgeting above the spending caps, the Pentagon is delaying crafting a realistic and effective strategy to meet national security needs – despite its cap being greater then all of Europe or Asia’s military spending. If the Pentagon were to budget within its means – rather than exceeding the spending caps and therefore setting up to self-trigger another round of sequestration – it would still have more than sufficient resources to couple with a strategy to ensure U.S. national security. The Pentagon’s budget cap for FY 2016 is $499 billion, or more than all of Asia and Oceania dedicates to military spending ($407 billion) or all of Europe including Russia ($410 billion), according to data collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments adds, “I think the reason they’re submitting a budget request above budget caps is political…They really believe we should be spending more on defense, so they don’t want to communicate to Congress or to the public that they would spend less if they submit a budget, a budget cut to that level…They may be afraid that Congress would respond, ‘You know, that’s not so bad.’” [Todd Harrison via Defense One, 2/2/5]
The Pentagon’s budget remains committed to status quo weapons systems of decreasing utility against emerging threats, hampering the adaptation of U.S. military power to new realities.
The F-35 is eating the Pentagon’s budget while offering far too little capability in return. Tobias Gibson, Professor at Westminster College and NSN Non-Resident Fellow, explains: The F-35’s “capabilities are mismatched to even conventional military threats — to say nothing of its bang-for-the-buck value against non-state actors or terrorist networks. The short range of the platform makes it of limited utility in the expansive Asia Pacific, where the U.S. Air Force is poised to operate 60 percent of its fleet by the end of the decade. The extent of the F-35′s stealthiness is also in question compared to aircraft like the F-22 — and at a time when advances in sensors and signals processing are significantly reducing stealth’s future outlook. And without the full advantage of its expensive stealth, the F-35 will be forced to rely on close-in maneuvering, where it is comparable and even inferior to other fourth-generation aircraft.” Nonetheless, the Pentagon is requesting $11 billion for 57 F-35s. [Tobias Gibson, 1/21/15]
Expensive commitments to nuclear aircraft carriers prevent American naval power from fully adapting to new operational environments. The Pentagon’s budget requests nearly $700 million to refuel the USS George Washington nuclear aircraft carrier despite the survivability of aircraft carriers being increasingly called into question by the proliferation of quiet diesel-electric submarines and anti-shipping cruise and ballistic missiles, particularly in the western Pacific where large-scale American sea power is focused and most important. In a major study, David Gompert of the RAND Corporation concludes that aircraft carriers “are being overtaken by 21st-century targeting and networking technology. As the battleship became vulnerable to and marginalized by the aircraft carrier by World War II, missiles and submarines will endanger the aircraft carrier and its primacy in the Western Pacific in the years to come.” He adds, “their vulnerability is becoming an operational liability in the Western Pacific. As this reality becomes apparent, the carrier’s potency in East Asian politics will also recede. Conversely, more survivable, if less conspicuous, U.S. sea power would sustain U.S. influence and interests in the region.” [David Gompert, accessed 2/4/15]
Commitment to massive nuclear weapons spending means fewer resources to more effectively address threats. Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association explains: “A new report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released on January 22 estimates that nuclear weapons spending will total $348 billion between FY 2015 and FY 2024, or five percent to six percent of the total costs of the administration’s plans for national defense. But this is just the tip of the coming budget bow wave. Over the next 30 years, the bill could add up to $1 trillion, according to recent report of the National Defense Panel Review of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review.” Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists explains the limited utility of nuclear weapons in the 21st-century: “Nuclear weapons do precious little to address the real threats we and our allies face today, and do nothing to address the threat of terrorism. Nothing to counter Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria. Nothing to counteract the growing risk of cyber attack. And, while recognizing the very problematic behavior of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the truth is U.S. nuclear forces did not stop the Russian military from invading Ukraine either. Spending more money on nuclear weapons would not turn them back.” [Kingston Reif, 2/3/15. Stephen Young, 2/1/15]
Congress should support the Pentagon’s cost saving initiatives like Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) that free-up resources to invest in combat power. Michèle Flournoy, Katherine Kidder, and Phillip Carter of the Center for a New American Security explain, “A perennial battle between DOD and Congress, the closing of underutilized bases could yield significant savings. DOD predicts nearly $2 billion in savings would be available if just 5 percent of excess infrastructure is divested. Currently, the department estimates that it has 20 percent more infrastructure than it needs.” Previously, Lt. Gen. David Barno (Ret.), Nora Bensahel, and their coauthors, also of CNAS, assessed the value of past BRACs and the full extent of savings possible from a fresh round: “DOD currently saves $12 billion per year from previous rounds of BRAC — $4 billion for the 2005 round and $8 billion for the four rounds before that…Combined with savings from closing [unneeded] DOD schools in the United States and reducing base support and facilities maintenance costs, authorizing and conducting a BRAC round could save up to $17 billion over the decade, with much greater savings afterwards.” [Michèle Flournoy, Katherine Kidder, and Phillip Carter, 2/15. David Barno, Nora Bensahel, Jake Stokes, et al, 6/6/13]