The Biden administration’s budget request for 2023 is what one would expect from a Democratic president in normal times: An increase in welfare spending and a cut in the military budget. But these are no ordinary times. The overall increase in discretionary spending is 9 percent, which translates to 1 percent real growth when taking into account the inflation rate of 7.9 percent. The Department of Defense, however, gets a 5 percent increase—meaning its budget shrank by 2.7 percent after inflation—despite the mounting burden on the military.
On the same day that the administration released the budget request, it also released a “fact sheet” about its forthcoming National Defense Strategy, which is yet to be released to the public after many delays. In other words, no strategy document will have governed half of Joe Biden’s presidency when it comes to military spending. And it shows in the request.
Reacting to the budget request, Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, a Navy veteran, tweeted that she held back from tweeting about the budget request “because frankly it would have been mostly full of words you might expect from a Sailor.”
There is an unfortunate recent fad to give every budget request a slogan. Last year’s was about a significant boost in research and development (but no acquisition). This year’s bumper sticker is “integrated deterrence” which Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has defined it like so: “Integrated deterrence is about using the right mix of technology, operational concepts, and capabilities—all woven together in a networked way that is so credible, and flexible, and formidable that it will give any adversary pause.” That’s about as clear as mud since this novel idea sounds a lot like what we have been trying to do for decades. “Integrated deterrence” is a term in search of a definition which the administration is using to sell its budget cuts.
The cut in the requested budget comes in spite of the new burdens on the Department of Defense. From the forward deployment of more troops to Europe, to the new sexual harassment prosecution required under the National Defense Authorization Act, to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, the Pentagon is spending more money on new programs and initiatives rather than on capabilities.
The exception is the Space Force, which receives a 12 percent boost from the previous year’s enacted appropriations under the president’s request. That makes sense given the service’s youth, and some space domain experts have pointed out that this is too low of an increase exactly because the infrastructure for the force is just being built. Cyber and nuclear weapons capabilities—distributed across the services—are also big winners of this budget, as they too receive large increases.
Conventional forces, on the other hand, are the big losers, which indicates that the administration doesn’t appreciate the current moment. As the largest European war in three-quarters of a century is still happening, the fact sheet relegates Russia to a secondary priority. As tanks are once again rolling across European borders, the budget request cuts the Army’s budget in real dollars by 5.8 percent. To account for this cut, the budget request calls for a reduction in the Army’s size. Ditto the Navy and the Marine Corps—less money, fewer people, more responsibilities, and a less stable world.
The thinking behind the budget request, read charitably, is that the administration is seeking to divest from old programs to make room for new ones. But it fails to account for the time gap between when old weapons and vehicles are retired and new ones are delivered. Now isn’t the right time to “divest to invest,” which is why Congress rejected it last year. Most forecasters believe that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is the likeliest in this decade, which makes the administration’s ambition for a smaller Navy even more puzzling. With the war in Europe, Iran’s increasing aggressions in the Middle East, and Afghanistan once again a terrorist sanctuary, one wonders what the administration is thinking.
Some are suggesting that this budget request is more of a political signaling mechanism than a serious governing document. This makes sense, and it wouldn’t be the first time an administration used a budget request—which is never what Congress actually appropriates anyway—as a political tool. The administration has been making moves to keep its progressive flank happy, most recently by moving the progressive darling Sasha Baker, a former staffer and advisor to Elizabeth Warren, to the Department of Defense.
But just because playing political games with the defense budget has become common doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. The Biden team has done a terrible job in handling the military aspect of the war in Ukraine. The president has made it clear that he is not going to risk escalation under any circumstances, which gives Putin all the room in the world to escalate as he sees fit and no reason to worry about how his military treats civilians. By asking for a budget cut, Biden is reaffirming Vladimir Putin’s, Xi Jinping’s, Ali Khamenei’s, and Kim Jong-un’s suspicions that the United States is hesitant to use force to deter its enemies and defend its interests. (Bashar al Assad already knew this.) Requesting a budget cut, even if not implemented, fits this pattern.
Confronted with similar crises, President Biden’s Democratic predecessors weren’t afraid to ask Congress and the American people for what they needed to defend the country. Facing the Berlin Crisis in 1961 and the subsequent construction of the Berlin Wall, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson asked Congress for supplemental defense bills five times in four years. Even President Jimmy Carter, not famous for his hawkishness, began what is now remembered as the “Reagan defense buildup” after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
Ukraine is Biden’s Berlin and Afghanistan. He should treat it as such.