US national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration
Yale historian Paul Kennedy defines “imperial overstretch” as a country’s overextension — geographically, economically, or militarily — that inevitably leads to the exhaustion of vital domestic resources and the country’s eventual decline. While the United States has yet to reach this point, the Department of Defense (DOD) accounts for more than 50 percent of the annual discretionary budget. Coupled with massive spending on COVID-19 relief and economic stimulus, overall U.S. government spending next year could be at highs never before seen. And with a Democratic-controlled House, a narrowly-divided Senate, and the new Biden administration running DOD, defense budgets will certainly be re-examined and squeezed.
It would not be far-fetched to say DOD budgets and appropriations bills will likely begin a downward slide in FY 2022.
The DOD budget is a very large slice of the federal discretionary spending pie, which is seen by some influential Democrats as a source of funds for domestic priorities. In April, during COVID-19 stimulus deliberations, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, contended: “I don’t think in a stimulus package we should put money in for DOD,” despite the request for additional funding coming from the Pentagon and the broader defense sector. If Democrats effectively leverage the House majority and Executive branch , they could put their mark on national security by retiring legacy platforms and closing unneeded installations; sustaining essential DOD platforms, reallocating resources, and leveraging technological advancements from the private sector to modernize the DOD.
Out with the old and in with the new — and addressing the readiness “crisis”
In a scenario where the budget is tightened, DOD and Congress will be forced to make tough choices about military spending.
Policymakers could start with the retirement of legacy platforms, which many military service secretaries have requested for years. Months ago, then-Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. David Goldfein, called for divesting portions of the A-10, C-130Hs and the RQ-4s aviation platforms to shift funds for new technology and Air Force modernization. Similarly, the Army’s FY2021 budget request called for the cancelation of 41 programs, including the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) and the Mobile Intermediate Range Missile (MIRM). Also, the nuclear enterprise modernization effort could be slowed, evidenced by Chairman Smith’s opposition to low-yield, submarine-launched nuclear weapons.
Another cost-cutting approach is the controversial Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), which is a neutral, non-partisan process of analyzing the department’s force structure and aligning infrastructure with military needs. Previous BRAC processes have sparked big fights among Congress and the commission, but yielded significant but painful consolidation or realignment of DOD facilities around the world. DOD’s latest “Infrastructure Capacity Report” identified 19 percent of the department’s base infrastructure in excess of need, which some argue makes a compelling case for BRAC. It is an open question whether a Biden administration would want to spend finite political capital on a BRAC process given all the other national security demands.
Reallocation of resources
In addition to legacy platform retirements, investment in sustainment and improving readiness could return as prioritiesor both the House and the newly-minted Biden administration.
Specifically, the latest House-passed NDAA included a requirement that each military branch establish new Deputy Assistant Secretaries to prioritize sustainment across each service.
Currently, the Congressional defense appropriations process is beset by conflicting approaches: resisting legacy platform retirement; addressing the “readiness crisis” by making sustainment investments; heavily investing in the modernization of platforms and technological innovation; and reconciling conflicts in the authorization or appropriations tracks. Something will have to give in an austere funding environment.
Leveraging Silicon Valley
The Department of Defense will likely restart efforts to leverage Silicon Valley’s technological ecosystem to modernize DOD’s way of doing business.
The Washington DC-Silicon Valley disconnect has been a concern since the 1990s; however, the Obama administration attempted to address this problem head-on in 2015. Specifically, they stood up the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (now the Defense Innovation Unit). The purpose was to enable DOD to take advantage of the technological innovations being made in private industry. Furthermore, the use of other transaction authorities (OTAs) for rapid prototyping authorized by section 804 of the FY 2016 NDAA will continue to be monitored by Congress and used by DOD to assist this effort.
Fortunately for DOD, Congress is paying attention.
The House Armed Services Committee’s Future of Defense Task Force, led by Reps. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Jim Banks (R-Ind.) held an important hearing on Feb. 5, titled “Supercharging the Innovation Base.” This task force, paired with an interested Silicon Valley and a more tech-friendly Department of Defense, could create more opportunities for technology companies looking to do business with DOD.
Foreign military sales and global competition with China
While the current administration has made selling weapons abroad a tenet of its foreign policy and export regime, the Senate has often acquiesced. But should the Senate flip to Democratic control, Congressional approval for any Foreign Military Sales (FMS) could become an even tougher slog for defense companies and foreign countries hoping to procure U.S. weapons systems.
Defense sales to foreign governments have been called into question by both sides, and Democrats and Republicans have often taken a president of their own party to task for such deals. In 2021, both new sales and those in the pipeline could be slowed or refused by a more assertive Congress.
One other subject on which many Democrats and Republicans will agree — and may find new energy to address — is China. In the national security space, there are dozens of legacy and emerging concerns: Chinese territorial expansion, cybersecurity hacks and breaches, supply chain security, and overall mercantilist commercial policy benefitting the Chinese military.
Even as military budgets are reduced, there are opportunities for more efficient ways to enhance U.S. national security. From embracing innovation and base consolidation to retiring dated platforms and battling China, there is a good chance that there will be extensive activity in the defense sector in 2021 and beyond. And we expect that Republicans and Democrats will need to unite to curb any imperial overstretch and ensure that our economic priorities will reflect aligned national defense and domestic health for the good of the nation.
Brian A. Greer is a principal at Klein/Johnson Group LLC. He was a professional staff member of the House Armed Services Committee, a Defense aide for Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and a legislative advisor at the Pentagon.