Opinion | National Security

Allies show US the price of reducing common defense funding

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There are a number of surprises in the Pentagon's budget request for fiscal year 2021. For example, despite trumpeting its increased allocation for research and development to just over $106 billion, it actually reduced its request for science and technology funds by $2 billion from that of fiscal year 2020. S&T activities, which address the most basic elements of research, are critical to the Department of Defense's (DOD) ability to exploit scientific breakthroughs that would ensure American dominance on the battlefield for decades to come. 

Given the DOD's constant and accurate refrain that, on the one hand, it remains hamstrung in its ability to capitalize upon technological advances in the commercial sector, and, on the other, that it faces an increasingly serious technological challenge from Russia and especially China, the reduction in S&T funding is puzzling, to say the least.

The defense budget's reduction in funding for the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) constitutes another surprising development. The EDI - previously the European Reassurance Initiative - represents Washington's concrete demonstration of its commitment to the defense of its Eastern European NATO allies, namely, Poland and the Baltic states. The initiative has funded an increase in American military  exercises, operations and presence in the Baltic region. Last year the DOD requested $6.1 billion for the EDI, and boasted that this sum represented the seriousness of America's commitment to the defense of Poland and the Baltic states. 

How, then, should these allies interpret the new budget request of $4.5 billion, which represents a 25 percent cut? Moreover, how are they to understand this reduction in the context of DOD's proposed increase in funds for training and exercises? With European member states having become increasingly skittish about America's commitment to the NATO alliance, especially in light of President Trump's negative musings about its value to the United States, a reduction of that magnitude hardly helps matters. It also contradicts the pious statements in both the National Defense Strategy and the new budget regarding the importance of allies to American security.

The Trump administration not only has created uncertainty about American reliability in the face of a crisis affecting its allies, it also has rattled a number of them with demands for full compensation for the forward deployment of its troops on their territory. The newly released defense request provides a worrying example of the consequences of these policies. 

For years the United States had planned to construct and field a missile defense radar somewhere in the Pacific to help defend against potential North Korean missile attacks on its territory and those of its allies. The radar was meant to fill gaps in the defense against North Korean missiles by tracking them in the midst of their flight. As the former Missile Defense Agency (MDA) director, Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee's strategic forces subcommittee in April 2019, "The Pacific Radar will ... maximize BMDS [Ballistic Missile Defense System] discrimination for both homeland and regional missile defense."

The plan took shape with a $1 billion program that called for deployment of the radar by fiscal year 2026. To this end, Congress awarded the MDA $14.1 million in fiscal year 2019 to launch the program, and followed with an additional $6.7 million in fiscal year 2020 for radar studies. The FY 20 funds were awarded to several contractors to define requirements for the radar, while the bulk of spending on the program was to commence with the FY 2021 budget. Nevertheless, at the same time as it funded the studies, Congress recognized that MDA's plans for fielding the radar were too ambitious and it both delayed the program by two years and reduced five-year spending by about a quarter, to $764 million. 

Instead of ramping up spending on the radar in the FY 21 budget, however, DOD killed the program. There is no funding for the radar in the new budget. And the reason is an exceedingly worrying comment on the degree to which allies and friendly states are hesitant to expand their cooperation with Washington. No nation was prepared to come forward to host the radar. 

DOD asserts that it will find other ways to provide for mid-course tracking of North Korean missiles, and perhaps it will. But the message of the cancelled system is that there is a price to pay for belittling allied contributions to the common defense. 

President Trump continues to call on Asian allies to fully fund the cost of deploying American troops on their territory. He also continues to demand that European NATO allies increase their defense budgets. Yet the cut to EDI hardly helps his case. On the contrary, America may find that, just as there were no takers for its Pacific radar, the Europeans also may decide that they need not jump through their own budget hoops to satisfy diktats from Washington.

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.

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