Biden’s 2023 defense budget is disappointing — and disturbing

The Pentagon is seen on Thursday, November 4, 2021 in Arlington, Va.
Greg Nash
The Pentagon is seen on Nov. 4, 2021, in Arlington, Va.

The Biden administration’s fiscal year 2023 defense budget request is in equal parts disappointing and disturbing. It is disappointing because, when inflation is taken into account, it provides no real growth in defense spending, and most likely a real decline. It is disturbing because it has been released at a time when America’s worldwide commitments are as demanding as ever. 

Washington confronts a revanchist Russia that continues to prosecute its invasion of Ukraine, while determined to alter the European strategic status quo that has prevailed since the fall of the Soviet Union. China’s challenge to the East Asian security system continues unabated. North Korea’s threat to stability in Northeast Asia has not diminished. And Iran, whether it agrees to a new nuclear deal, is poised to intensify its threats to Middle Eastern stability. A defense budget that is, at best, static hardly offers the appropriate response to these multiple threats to American and allied interests.

What is especially astonishing about this budget is that it could have been revised when Russia was massing its forces near Ukraine in early December, well before the budget typically is “put to bed.” Indeed, once it was clear that the federal budget would not be rolled out in early February but more than a month later, the administration had even more time to revise the defense budget in light of the Russian invasion. It did not do so.

Instead, this budget reflects a real decline in defense spending from the FY 2022 base budget that was approved a month ago. The Department of Defense (DOD) budget appears to assume that inflation — currently running near 8 percent — will drop to 2.6 percent over the next half-year, when the current fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. Such a sharp decline is simply improbable.

Fuel prices, a major component of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), remain at near-record levels, and are unlikely to decline until substitutes can be found for Russian petroleum. Indeed, the rate of inflation for defense spending historically has been higher than that of the CPI. Moreover, with over 10 million unfilled jobs in the United States, the demand for workers will continue to drive up wages, further intensifying the inflationary spike. Even if the Federal Reserve’s projected incremental interest rate increases manage to reduce inflation to half its current level, the result would amount to no real growth in defense spending.

Elements of the defense request would further reduce the availability of funding for the Defense Department’s needs. The budget request calls for $300 million to support Ukraine. The net result, however, would be a reduction in funding for DOD programs. It is noteworthy that the administration sought to finance its FY 2022 supplemental request for military assistance to Ukraine from funds already in the defense budget; Congress, however, did not go along and funded that amount as part of its supplemental. The administration appears to be repeating the same gambit.

The DOD also is seeking $3.1 billion to address climate change, an administration priority. While there certainly is a need to ensure that defense facilities and installations do not suffer the ravages of climate change, as was the case in the recent past, it is not at all clear why a further $800 million is being requested for science and technology. Surely, such research could be conducted by other government agencies.

The budget also contains a series of programs relating to cancer and other medical research programs that are of questionable utility to the DOD’s mission. Programs such as those for lung cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and epilepsy, while laudable, could be addressed more properly by agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.

The budget includes major reductions to current programs. The DOD is requesting nine new ships but retiring 24. Indeed, one of those “new” ships, the LHD-9 amphibious assault ship, is hardly a new acquisition at all. Congress approved it in FY 2020. The administration’s request would bring Navy force levels to as low as 280 ships by fiscal year 2027. Yet the demand for a larger fleet that year could be significantly greater — that is the year that the previous commander of Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Phil Davidson, predicted that China would be in a strong position to attack Taiwan. 

If that were not enough, Russian efforts to control the northern Black Sea, if successful, would put a premium on naval presence in the nearby Mediterranean. The Navy continues to fund its Columbia class strategic ballistic submarines but, as in the past, the cost of these boats eats into other Navy programs — not only ships. For example, it is requesting a buy of six fewer F-35 fighters (the Marines are requesting three fewer F-35s as well).

The Navy’s predicament is not unique. The Air Force will increase its spending on the B-21 strategic bomber and the Space Force. Nevertheless, it not only will retire nearly 270 aircraft, but also proposes to buy 15 fewer aircraft than in FY 2022. Yet it is arguable that both more aircraft in general, and F-35 fighters in particular, are of critical importance to deterring Russia. Germany and Finland certainly hold that view; they have chosen to acquire F-35s.

Finally, it remains unclear whether the Army will benefit from real growth in its budget. Yet the Army’s relevance to America’s conventional deterrent, whose relevance to a potential conflict with China has come under considerable scrutiny, no longer is in question at a time when the demands for its enlarged presence in Europe continue to intensify.

It is almost certain that Congress will increase the administration’s budget request from $773 billion to well over $800 billion. Yet such increases, however welcome, no doubt will follow on the heels of yet another set of concurrent resolutions, which are almost a certainty in this election year. One can only wonder, therefore, why in the face of these expectations the administration simply did not increase its own request. 

A budget that insufficiently addresses not only the growing demands of the crisis in Europe, but also ongoing threats elsewhere hardly is the most effective or credible way to signal to the world that, indeed, “America is back.”

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Biden Biden 2023 budget China Defense spending Department of Defense Joe Biden Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine

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