The Progressive Defense Budget

According to a June 5 Communications Office of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) memo, the HASC will be marking up the FY2021 defense budget for the rest of this month. If all goes as planned, the full committee will complete the mark up by July 1, 2020.

During this process, the Chair and Ranking Member of the HASC should play close attention to a letter from 29 members of the Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives. On May 19, they called on the Chair and Ranking Member not to authorize an increase in defense spending for FY2021, which begins on October 1, 2020. This is a proposal that Adam Smith (D-WA) the chair of the HASC agrees with.

These progressive legislators, who represent states from all parts of the country, argue that the coronavirus epidemic is our greatest adversary, having already killed more Americans than the war in Vietnam. Thus, they argue, that the government response to it should receive more federal funding. And they make a cogent argument that much of this funding can and should come from the Pentagon budget.

Objective analysis reveals that their recommendations are correct and can be embraced without jeopardizing national security. As the Congresswomen and men point out, since Trump came into office, he has increased defense spending by over $100 billion or 20% more than Obama’s last defense budget. As a result, the U.S. share of global defense spending has risen significantly. When Trump came into office, the United States was spending more than the next seven nations in the world combined. Now, it exceeds that of the next 10 nations combined (most of whom are our allies) and, in real terms it is higher than it was at the height of the Reagan buildup or the wars in Vietnam and Korea.

The president justified this massive increase because he claimed that his administration inherited a pervasive readiness crisis which resulted from massive underfunding of the military during the Obama years. But, as retired general and former CIA Director, David Petraeus and Brookings Institution defense expert Michael O’Hanlon pointed out several times, there was no readiness crisis. In fact, they argue that the state of our military that Trump inherited in 2017 was “awesome.”

Moreover, while the base defense budget may have declined slightly in real terms, during the Obama years, as a result of sequestration, the Pentagon more than made up for it by using the overseas contingency account (OCO) or warfighting budget, which was not subject to sequestration, as a slush fund, by pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into it to fund programs that had nothing to do with any of the ongoing wars the United States is involved in (a policy Trump has continued). Last year the OCO account had $60 billion in it that had nothing to do with current wars the country is involved in.

Moreover, Trump’s military budget actually undermined our security and our ability to confront the crisis by not only not paying for this buildup by not raising taxes, but actually cutting them, and reducing funding dramatically for the State Department, the Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), which as a result had to cut the resources it devoted to global health by 80% and close its mission in China, which if it had remained open may have enabled us to gain information about the COVID-19 pandemic even earlier.

While the progressives do not specify what reductions should be made, objective analysis shows that there are several areas that could be cut from the proposed $740 billion budget without undermining our security.

First, the Congress can and should make substantial reductions in our nuclear programs. For FY2021, the administration proposes to increase spending on our nuclear programs by 17% to about $50 billion. This will mean we will spend at least 20% of our total modernization budget on these weapons of mass destruction. But, if the president takes up President Putin’s offer to extend the New START agreement for five years, which can be done without Senate approval, the government can save at least $10 billion in FY 2021 alone by canceling the land base portion of the nuclear modernization program and the Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) weapon as recommended by former secretary of defense William Perry. And we should stop developing and deploying tactical nuclear weapons, a policy James Stavridis, former NATO Commander calls destabilizing, and which are not only expensive but increase the threat of nuclear war. Finally, we should embrace a no first use policy.

Second, the Navy should stop building large super aircraft carriers. This policy has been recommended by many experts, including the late Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a former naval aviator and chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and John Shanahan, who served as acting Secretary of Defense until last August. Not only are these large ships vulnerable to Chinese and Russian missiles, but they are becoming prohibitively expensive, about $15 billion each.

Third, the Pentagon needs to slow down production of the F-35 program. It currently has 873 software issues and a gun that does not work.

Finally, the Pentagon needs to improve its management. It acknowledges that it wastes at least $25 billion a year.

Taking these steps will allow the Pentagon to reduce its budget by at least $40 billion up to $700 billion, still more than the next nine countries in the world combined. Moreover, to those who believe that this number is too small, it is important to remember that no matter how much we spend on defense we can never buy perfect security. And our strategic competitors Russia and China are also going to have to focus more on dealing with the coronavirus and direct more resources to it. Finally, dealing with the pandemic currently is our greatest national security threat and must be given priority in national security spending.

As retired General David Barno, former commander of our forces in Afghanistan and his colleague, Nora Bensahel, point out, this will happen because Americans will look at the immeasurable damage caused by the pandemic and correctly conclude that defending the homeland from catastrophic threats is more urgent than defending against threats far from America’s shores. This is exactly the point the progressive lawmakers are making and that the HASC should pay attention to during their markup of the FY2021 defense budget.

Image: Getty Images, Creative # 691392586

 

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About the Author(s)

Lawrence Korb

Senior Fellow at American Progress; former Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan Administration. Follow him on Twitter (@LarryKorb).