Biden’s $715 Billion Pentagon Plan Stirs Debate Over Size, Focus

President Joe Biden plans to request $715 billion for his first Pentagon budget, quickly generating a vigorous debate in Congress over how much to spend on defense and how to spend it.

The $715 billion for the Defense Department is 1.6% higher than the $704 billion enacted for this year, but it would amount to a decrease of about 0.4% in real terms adjusted for inflation. The proposal, announced Friday as part of the president’s broader budget plan for the next fiscal year, signals efforts to deter China and Russia by advancing hypersonic weapons and bolstering the U.S. Navy fleet with ballistic missile submarines and unmanned ships.

The Pentagon’s budget proposal makes up the largest share of the $753 billion the White House envisions for national security programs. That includes defense-related funding to the Department of Energy, which maintains the nation’s nuclear weapons. The proposal represents an increase of about 1.7% from this year’s $741 billion in such national security funding.

Republican senators who play prominent roles on defense, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, condemned the planned Defense Department spending as an effective cut because it fails to keep up with inflation.

“President Biden’s budget proposal cuts defense spending, sending a terrible signal not only to our adversaries in Beijing and Moscow, but also to our allies and partners,” McConnell said in a statement also signed by James Inhofe, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Richard Shelby. “Cutting America’s defense budget completely undermines Washington Democrats’ tough talk on China and calls into question the administration’s willingness to confront the Chinese Communist Party.”

Biden’s proposal also exposed rifts over adequate national security spending within the Democratic Party. Liberals such as Representative Ro Khanna of California, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, and Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin portrayed the defense proposal as excessive.

“We cannot best build back better if the Pentagon’s budget is larger than it was under Donald Trump,” Pocan said in a statement. “We recognize that non-defense spending has a proposed 16% increase, versus the 1.7% increase in defense spending. But increased spending on the Pentagon on fraud, waste, and zero accountability is still just that, and takes away from funding that could be spent on other people-centric policies like health care, education and housing.”

By contrast, Democratic Representative Betty McCollum of Minnesota, the new chair of the House defense spending panel, praised the proposal as an investment in “essential national security needs.”

“The proposed 1.5% increase for the Department of Defense will sustain readiness and modernization while we also focus on divesting from ineffective legacy programs and eliminating wasteful spending,” she said in a statement.

Climate Change

Biden’s proposal would include funding to tackle climate change as a national security priority, a reversal from Trump administration policies. The request would include investments in power and energy research and development.

“It is vital to national security that U.S. military installations, and the mission critical capabilities these installations support, are resilient to climate-induced extreme weather,” the White House Office of Management and Budget said Friday in a release detailing Biden’s discretionary spending priorities.

Significantly, the Biden plan would discontinue wartime funding, or Overseas Contingency Operations, as a separate account. It would instead fund direct costs of war and enduring operations in the Pentagon’s regular budget, as many budget experts have endorsed for years.

The Trump administration had planned to propose about $722 billion for the Defense Department in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, although lawmakers of both parties have predicted less would be available amid competing spending demands and rising deficits from coronavirus relief packages.

The fiscal 2022 budget will be the first in a decade in which defense and non-defense spending aren’t constrained by budget caps, meaning that Congress has an opening to shift funds from defense to non-defense spending, or the reverse.

The Pentagon budget proposal is attracting criticism from several groups that have pressed for cuts in defense spending.

“The Biden administration’s decision to increase the Pentagon budget from near-record levels is both misguided and disappointing,” said William Hartung, director for the arms and security program at the Center for International Policy and co-director of the Sustainable Defense Task Force. “As a candidate, President Biden affirmed that the country could be made safe at lower levels of spending.”

Gordon Adams, a former Office of Management and Budget and associate director for national security programs in the Clinton administration, said Biden “is missing an opportunity to bring much-needed discipline to defense planning and the defense budget.”

An administration official said part of the larger defense budget is meant for troops’ pay increases, ensuring that they have all the equipment they need, as well as competing with China.

Congressional Math

Congressional math is likely to prevent Democrats from taking a scalpel to the Pentagon’s budget. Senate committees are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, so every proposal would have to attract Republican votes.

GOP lawmakers have been pushing for real annual increases of a 3% to 5% in national security funding first endorsed by then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in 2017. The increases were also backed by the National Defense Strategy Commission in 2018.

Biden’s proposal also makes a politically difficult pledge to phase out “legacy” weapons programs. “Some legacy force structure is too costly to maintain and operate, and no longer provides the capabilities needed to address national security challenges,” the White House said.

The administration’s Pentagon outline says countering the threat from China is the Defense Department’s top challenge, and it also seeks to deter destabilizing behavior from Russia. It endorses a “Pacific Defense Initiative” advocated by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to increase U.S. defense capabilities in Guam and the surrounding region. The command requested $4.7 billion for fiscal year 2022.

The request also highlights the need to modernize U.S. nuclear forces -- without explicitly endorsing the new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile program -- and maintaining U.S. naval power. The fiscal 2022 request backs the new Columbia-class submarine program and would invest in “remotely operated and autonomous systems” that were endorsed in a notional Trump administration shipbuilding plan released in December.

It backs Army and Marine Corps programs for long-range strike capabilities. And in a nod to competition with China, it highlights investments in developing and testing hypersonic strike weapons.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.