Bigger budgets won’t solve the Pentagon’s problems — and could make them worse
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has lawmakers and former defense officials of both parties calling for higher defense budgets to address Moscow’s escalating aggression and China’s continued threat to U.S. allies. The Biden administration’s request for additional funding to beef up U.S. military posture in Europe suggests the White House may agree, potentially heralding a shift for the Pentagon, which was reportedly expecting an inflation-adjusted budget cut in fiscal year 2023.
U.S. defense spending certainly should not shrink relative to inflation, given the rising challenges from China and Russia. But proponents of a higher Pentagon topline need to go beyond simply demanding a bigger and newer version of today’s force. The U.S. military needs to dramatically change what it buys and how it fights to deter aggression in the 21st century. Unfortunately, a several-percent defense budget windfall could be just enough to convince Pentagon leaders that change is not needed and the U.S. military can counter Russia and China by growing their existing force of large and expensive manned multi-mission ships, aircraft and ground vehicles.
Like a family with more jet skis than college funds, the Pentagon should view higher defense budgets as an opportunity to change and invest in a new American way of war. Gone are the days when the U.S. military could dictate the terms of a conflict and amass forces in relatively safe areas nearby. Despite defense officials long highlighting the challenges posed by “anti-access” missile systems, their budgets still favor platforms without the reach to fight from outside enemy weapons range and too costly to risk inside, where Chinese or Russian precision-guided missiles could overwhelm the defenses of ponderous U.S. platforms and troop formations. And bombers or aircraft carriers are of little use opposing the gray-zone or hybrid tactics Russia and China use against NATO, Japan or Australia.
Dissuading China or Russia will require the capability and willingness to counter aggression every day, rather than a force of high-end units optimized to fight World War III that are too expensive to keep on deployment. A U.S. military composed of a larger number of less-exquisite ships, aircraft and ground formations would offer more options to commanders — including for gray-zone or hybrid conflict — while still being able to aggregate for mass effects. Most importantly, a force with more options would enable proportional responses to Chinese or Russian provocations at acceptable levels of risk. This type of persistent engagement has been working for U.S. CYBERCOM in the electronic domain.
Instead of solving the Defense Department’s challenges, more money could lead to more problems. For example, the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program the Pentagon intends to replace Air Force F-22 Raptors and Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornets is often described as a “sixth-generation” fighter with longer range, greater stealth and higher speed than its predecessors. But achieving significant improvement in these traditional metrics may yield a jet that is too pricey to buy in sufficient numbers to defeat China’s air force.
Future air operations may be better served by a system-of-systems featuring a less-expensive NGAD that prioritizes stealth, communications and computing capacity and can act as a forward command node for a collection of smaller unmanned systems. But with more money in its coffers, Department of Defense (DOD) leaders may be tempted to pursue the next great fighter rather than an air warfare architecture that could deter China.
Instead of chasing exquisite new systems, more money could pay bigger dividends by expanding military experimentation. Despite being a Pentagon priority, the DOD spends less than 1 percent of its budget on operations that develop and test new concepts and tactics. Research and development received the largest budget increases in the last proposed defense budget, but operational experimentation is the way technologies become real capabilities and is essential to bridging the “valley of death.”
A resurgence in defense spending will be a good thing generally for U.S. national security. Across the board, U.S. forces are overworked and need maintenance and recapitalization. In part, the U.S. military’s readiness deficit results from its continued pursuit of costly platforms and formations. That approach is failing against peer adversaries such as China or Russia, which have home field advantages, comparable technologies, robust defense spending, and none of the United States’s global responsibilities. A rising Pentagon topline should be used to fund creative operational solutions and a rebalanced force, rather than an incrementally larger military.
Bryan Clark and Dan Patt are senior fellows at the Hudson Institute.