President Joe Biden once famously said, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” Determining the size and distribution of the annual defense budget is one of the most important decisions the administration and Congress make each year. Despite the many differences between the two administrations, Biden’s proposed FY2022 defense budget of $753 billion essentially embraced the massive defense spending increases seen under former President Donald Trump – and has drawn criticism as a result. There is a different bipartisan path ahead – involving cutting unnecessary spending and addressing waste and mismanagement – if the administration wants to take it.
The Shortcomings of Biden’s Defense Budget: Bipartisan Critiques
During his term, President Trump increased defense spending by more than $100 billion over the level he inherited from the Obama administration. After losing the 2020 election, Trump took the unprecedented step of releasing the defense budget he would have sent to Congress had he won a second term. President Biden’s budget can therefore be compared to both Trump’s four defense budgets and his hypothetical fifth.
Rather than reducing defense spending, Biden’s proposed budget of $753 billion is $12 billion more than the budget enacted in FY2021 and only $6 billion less than the amount Trump had hypothetically projected for FY2022.
Unfortunately for Biden, his embrace of Trump’s budget total did not garner much support on either side of the congressional aisle. Many defense hawks are calling for an increase in the proposed defense budget to deal with China as a growing military threat. Many progressives, such as Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI), had hoped Biden would reduce the budget by 10 percent, which is still more than the defense budgets of China and Russia combined.
Biden also increased spending for the nonmilitary departments of national security. For FY2022, the administration proposed $58.5 billion for the State Department and USAID, an increase of 10 percent over the FY2021 enacted level and greater than 40 percent above the amount the Trump administration had proposed for FY2021.
While Trump slashed funding for nonmilitary security organizations to help pay for his defense buildup, Biden did not similarly reduce spending to pay for the necessary increase in the State Department and USAID budget. Total national security spending will therefore rise significantly in FY2022, increasing the total discretionary federal budget and burgeoning federal deficit.
In the nuclear weapons portion of his budget, Biden ignored his campaign pledges and party platform to embrace Trump’s proposal to rebuild all three legs of the nuclear triad and develop new tactical nuclear weapons, at a total cost of $1.7 trillion. In FY2021, the country spent about $40 billion on nuclear programs; Biden proposes to increase that to over $43 billion.
Surprisingly, Biden ignored the advice of nuclear strategists in his own party when it comes to modernizing the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or land-based component of the nuclear triad at a total cost of $234 billion over the next decade. Many experts have argued that a new ICBM not only is unnecessary for deterrence but also increases the likelihood of nuclear war. Yet Biden’s budget increases funding for a new ICBM by $1.2 billion, or almost 80%, over the enacted FY2021 budget. Biden’s budget essentially maintains spending for the tactical nuclear weapons – including the sea-launched cruise missile, which lowers the threshold for nuclear war.
Unfortunately, Congress supported the entire funding for both the strategic and tactical nuclear weapons proposed by Presidents Trump and Biden.
Ships and Aircrafts
One area where the Biden administration budget reduces funds from the hypothetical Trump budget is for Navy shipbuilding. The Trump administration had proposed to spend $170 billion, or about $25 billion more per year, over the FY2022–2026 period, to expand the Navy from its current level of 296 manned ships to over 400 by 2050. This would have meant increasing the Navy shipbuilding budget by about 50 percent above the average for the past five years. Because that was fiscally unrealistic, the Biden administration proposed a Navy of 321 manned ships by 2030.
Biden’s proposal is drawing a lot of criticism because it uses a “divest to invest strategy.” It proposes to retire 15 ships but procure only eight, instead of the 12 new ships proposed by Trump. Doing this will enable next year’s budget to dedicate more money to developing new ships. But many members of Congress want to buy more ships now and limit the FY2022 cuts by adding more money to the total defense budget.
Biden should consider taking money from the Army in the future to pay for the proposed additional shipbuilding beyond FY2022. In fact, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said late last year that the Army’s funding should be reduced in order to get the Navy the hundreds of new ships it needs to address the military threat from China.
When it comes to tactical aircraft for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, the Biden administration has asked for 85 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the same number the Trump administration projected in its hypothetical fifth budget. Although this is 8 planes fewer than Congress enacted in FY2021, it is still far more than many believe is cost-effective.
Active Military Force
Since the Biden administration retained the previous administration’s defense budget total, it did not need to make any significant changes in the size of the active military force. In FY2021, active-duty end strength for all five branches of the military was 1,351,048, an increase of 80,000 over the level Trump inherited from President Barack Obama. For FY2022, Biden proposed an active force of 1,346,400, a decline of about 5,400, or 0.3%.
Notably, Biden proposed to maintain the current size of the active force even as his administration shifts its focus from the Middle East to the threat from China, which will involve fewer ground forces and more emphasis on naval and air forces, which are less manpower intensive.
Waste and Mismanagement
Lastly, the Biden administration’s budget does not address the waste and mismanagement in the Department of Defense – including the Pentagon’s 20 percent excess capacity and the $25 billion that the Pentagon comptroller admits it wastes each year. Air Force General John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently pointed out that the three to five percent annual increases would not be needed if inefficiencies in the budget process were eliminated.
A Better Way Forward to FY2023
Many of Biden’s supporters who are disappointed that his budget essentially ratifies Trump’s projected budget contend that it is a placeholder and that the FY2023 budget will make the tough decisions Biden has so far avoided. But this assertion ignores the fact that presidents who have made significant changes in defense spending have normally done so in their first year in office. What’s more, if Biden makes significant reductions to the budget, he will face resistance from members of Congress who are concerned about the Chinese military buildup; some others are even claiming that China is already outspending the United States.
The administration must recognize that in real terms, the United States is already spending more on defense than it did during the Cold War and the Reagan defense buildup. And dollars cannot buy perfect national security. In its FY2023 budget, the administration must reduce unnecessary spending and address waste and mismanagement if it wants to pass a bipartisan defense budget that protects U.S. security in a cost-effective way.