America cannot afford to have the defense budget at the same levels
Recent reports claim the Biden administration plans to hold the defense budget flat for the next fiscal year. That would be a mistake with several serious ramifications. A frozen defense budget will not satisfy the needs for the military to counter threats ranging from an emboldened China, a revanchist Russia, and constant bad actors such as Iran and North Korea. A commission with bipartisan experts including the new deputy defense secretary warned that the defense budget will need to rise at an average of 3 percent to 5 percent annually above inflation in order for the United States to project power and uphold our alliance commitments.
Defense experts since reinforced this need and testified that this modest budget growth is necessary to perform three tasks to prepare our military for the future, maintain higher readiness, and revitalize the forces. Due to our diminished military, despite the efforts in the Trump administration to rebuild, and such unsettling actions of our adversaries, the United States does not have the luxury to select and decide which of these it desires to achieve. It needs to instead work toward all three tasks at once.
The Obama administration had national priorities other than defense and neglected military readiness, so the result was that the forces declined in their ability to fight with no notice. The large chunk of the defense budget increases in the last four years had to be dedicated to fixing the miserable levels of readiness. Those efforts enjoyed success, best seen by the Army reaching a very strong level of readiness as noted in the index for military strength that is published annually at the Heritage Foundation.
But fixing current readiness is only part of the problem. The military finds itself too limited and old to deal with all the threats over the horizon. The average age of jets in the Air Force is 30 years, the Navy is the smallest it has been since World War Two, and the main supplies used with the Army date back to the Reagan administration. Although low, inflation eats away at the defense budget. The Pentagon has estimated that for the next four years, salary raises combined with medical costs and fuel would result in an annual loss of more than 2 percent on its purchasing power.
So a flat budget held at the same level as last year will mean the Pentagon has to cut more than 2 percent, or about $15 billion, from somewhere else in its budget to find the resources to pay for higher costs. This comes at a time when the Pentagon needs to prepare for more challenging missions, to modernize our nuclear deterrent, and to refocus with China.
It is important to note that sufficient funding of national defense does not mean the Pentagon should get a pass on efforts to become more efficient and transparent. In fact, it is truly the opposite. Efforts to scrub every line of defense funding for savings that started with the Trump administration should continue, and the Pentagon needs to double down on its efforts to pass the financial audit. The Defense Department should work to become a shining model of stewardship for our federal taxpayer dollars.
Fiscal stewardship becomes more important as the challenges to our national security grow more sophisticated, as one of us has observed while leading the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. Our adversaries have in recent years steadily chipped away at our advantage on technology that are relevant to our warfighters, whether it is forced business transfers, simple traditional stealing, or even the indigenous development of new abilities.
Now is not the time to coast on our advantage but to reinforce this. That strategy of the Reagan administration to achieve peace through strength has shown to be a strong deterrent to our adversaries. Congress and the president must set our warfighters for success with sufficient funding for the Defense Department. A flat budget could not achieve that.
Joni Ernst is a Republican senator from Iowa and a member on the Armed Services Committee. James Carafano is a vice president and the research director of national security and foreign affairs at the Heritage Foundation.
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