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President Biden requested more than $1 trillion for national security in the budget that he submitted to Congress on Monday—about $10 billion, or 1 percent, more money than he requested last year.

It is the largest security budget in U.S. history, even adjusting for inflation. Yet, much like the entire $7.2 trillion federal budget, it is a bit of a phantasm—part real, part fantasy, part nightmare, not likely to materialize in life, except as a warped caricature of itself.

Exactly how big is this gargantuan budget? You will read news stories reporting varying numbers. Those articles are not wrong; they’re just referring to different measures without telling you so. For instance, the Department of Defense is asking for $849.8 billion. But the Office of Management and Budget’s definition of “national defense” includes DoD’s accounts plus the Department of Energy’s sectors that make nuclear warheads and maintain the nuclear-weapon labs ($34 billion), as well as some minor “defense-related” sections elsewhere. In all, “national defense” totals $895.2 billion.

OMB also has a category called “Defense Allocation—Security” (see Section S-7, page 167), which comprises national defense plus the budgets for Veterans Affairs, certain aspects of foreign aid, and the Intelligence Community Management account, which funds coordination among the intel agencies. Together, this amounts to $1,017 billion—or a little over $1 trillion.

Compared with last year’s $1,008 billion (or $1.008 trillion), this amounts to just a 1 percent increase—not even keeping up with the estimated 2.5 percent inflation rate for defense items. Already, congressional leaders are saying that Biden’s request is too small. But Biden is merely conforming to a 2023 law called the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which put a cap on all federal spending at then-current levels. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said Monday that the Pentagon would like to raise spending higher—it’ll need to do so in the years to come.

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But the same congressional leaders who are moaning about Biden’s budget have no interest in repealing the cap. What will they do instead? They’ll take a flyer and put the burden of scrapping and scraping to the Pentagon’s budgeteers.

This budget or something like it is meant to take effect in fiscal year 2025, which begins this October. But Congress hasn’t yet passed the fiscal year 2024 budget, which Biden submitted a year ago, even though FY 2024 has now been going on for five months. Instead, it passed a continuing resolution, which allowed the Pentagon, as an interim gesture, to keep spending the same sum that it had been given the year before—for FY 2023. Congress is likely to do the same thing in lieu of committing serious work to the FY 2025 bill.

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This is no way to run … anything. Last year, the Pentagon had put together a package of programs estimated to cost a certain amount of money. The president signed it. Congressional committees approved it, with slight adjustments.

But then the overall Congress didn’t come through with the money. And it was too late for the Pentagon to go back and remove the programs that no longer fit the budget. It takes years to build most weapons or lay the infrastructure for a new combat unit. The contracts have been signed, workers hired, work begun. Costs have to be cut on the corners—stretching out the schedule (which will increase costs in the long run) or chopping off some qualitative points.

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If everything were rational, someone at the top could just could change priorities, but vested interests are too entrenched. During the process of putting together the new budget, inflation and the requirement to abide by the Fiscal Responsibility Act forced the Pentagon to cut, at the last minute, $10 billion from the plan.

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A quick and easy cost-saver might have been to slow down development of some new nuclear weapons ($5.3 billion to continue work on the B-21 bomber, $3.7 billion for more work on the Sentinel ICBM, which is already way over budget and may not be needed anyway). But there’s a huge constituency for nuclear bombers and missiles. So, instead, the budget calls for retiring 250 aging but still well-functioning fighter planes (saving $2 billion) and reducing the active-duty ranks by 5,700 troops (another $2 billion), among other economies—even though, I suspect, most military officers would prefer to postpone or reassess the nukes if it meant keeping the planes and the troops.

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In the past, when the Pentagon has cut Program A in order to fund Program B, Congress has often restored the money for Program A while chiding officials for “playing politics with defense.” Then, either the budget has to be increased (which can’t be done with the Fiscal Responsibility Act) or something else has to be cut—and who decides what gets put on the chopping block the next round?

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Or how about this bit of self-defeating penny-pinching? For several years, some creative minds in the defense world, many of whom ran an outfit called Defense Innovation Unit Experimental in Silicon Valley, have tried to transplant their procurement techniques—fast, small, streamlined, tilted to the soldiers’ needs, not the bureaucrats’ imperative—to the larger Pentagon bureaucracy. Finally, they succeeded, with the launch of Program Replicator. They were given $500 million for its first project: getting small companies to design, and build thousands of, small, cheap autonomous drones to go up against the swarms of anti-ship and anti-missile weapons that the U.S. Air Force and Navy are certain to face in the event of a war with China.

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But it’s not a line item in the FY 2025 budget; there’s no room for it. Officials say they’re hoping to get Congress to insert it into the FY 2024 budget (if it ever gets around to passing that); if not, they’ll have to reprogram money—killing something else to make room for Replicator in 2025, unless of course Congress kills Replicator in the meantime.

There are some interesting things in this new budget besides Project Replicator. There’s a 4.5 percent pay hike for military personnel. (If passed, this will mean that, since Biden came to office, members of the armed forces will have received a total 18 percent salary hike.) There’s $28.7 billion for munitions—including $5.9 billion for ammo, $16 billion for tactical missiles, and a multiyear program to upgrade the “defense industrial base” to produce such basic stuff.

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This stems from the lesson of the war in Ukraine. In years past, few thought we might be facing another war in Europe fought with millions of artillery shells. We’ve only just restarted producing shells and bullets in mass quantity. It’s also a new thing that Congress agreed to authorize several years of funding, ahead of time, to build the new factories. Multiyear budgeting, which means giving up year-to-year control, is something Congress doesn’t like to do.

There’s also $33.7 billion to reduce the vulnerability of military assets in outer space, in part a response to reports of Russian and Chinese progress in anti-satellite technology, and $14.7 billion to improve cyber capabilities and resiliency (though the public budget documents are skimpy on details). And there’s $530 million to train and equip foreign troops fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria—a reminder that the war on terror isn’t finished.

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But there’s plenty of excess. There’s $49.2 billion for new nuclear missiles, bombers, and submarines—plus $34 billion for the nuclear bombs and warheads that go with them. That’s $83.2 billion in all—a 35 percent increase over the $61.5 billion approved last year, which was a 20 percent increase over the year before that. And those numbers are going to skyrocket as the new bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarines move into production.

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It’s time to rethink how many nukes we really need—and how much longer we can just hang on to the ones we already have. Otherwise, the rest of the budget, defense and otherwise, is going to be impoverished by the nuclear juggernaut.

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There’s $28.4 billion for missile defense—about the same as the sum for last year—but this time, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency decided not to brief the press on the details (as it has in previous years), and the published budget document itemizes just $6.1 billion. What’s in the other $22.3 billion? We don’t know.

It’s a dangerous world out there. As long as the United States is a global power with obligations to allies, national defense will cost a lot of money. It might even be possible to present a fully rational plan that costs $1 trillion. But this isn’t that plan. It’s a hodgepodge, dominated by the keepers of legacy programs, twisted by pressure from bureaucratic interests and buck-passing legislators. At the very minimum, the national defense is worth taking more seriously.

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QOSHE - What’s in Biden’s $1 Trillion (Yes, Trillion) National Security Budget - Fred Kaplan
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What’s in Biden’s $1 Trillion (Yes, Trillion) National Security Budget

9 4
12.03.2024
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President Biden requested more than $1 trillion for national security in the budget that he submitted to Congress on Monday—about $10 billion, or 1 percent, more money than he requested last year.

It is the largest security budget in U.S. history, even adjusting for inflation. Yet, much like the entire $7.2 trillion federal budget, it is a bit of a phantasm—part real, part fantasy, part nightmare, not likely to materialize in life, except as a warped caricature of itself.

Exactly how big is this gargantuan budget? You will read news stories reporting varying numbers. Those articles are not wrong; they’re just referring to different measures without telling you so. For instance, the Department of Defense is asking for $849.8 billion. But the Office of Management and Budget’s definition of “national defense” includes DoD’s accounts plus the Department of Energy’s sectors that make nuclear warheads and maintain the nuclear-weapon labs ($34 billion), as well as some minor “defense-related” sections elsewhere. In all, “national defense” totals $895.2 billion.

OMB also has a category called “Defense Allocation—Security” (see Section S-7, page 167), which comprises national defense plus the budgets for Veterans Affairs, certain aspects of foreign aid, and the Intelligence Community Management account, which funds coordination among the intel agencies. Together, this amounts to $1,017 billion—or a little over $1 trillion.

Compared with last year’s $1,008 billion (or $1.008 trillion), this amounts to just a 1 percent increase—not even keeping up with the estimated 2.5 percent inflation rate for defense items. Already, congressional leaders are saying that Biden’s request is too small. But Biden is merely conforming to a 2023 law called the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which put a cap on all federal spending at then-current levels. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said Monday that the Pentagon would like to raise spending higher—it’ll need to do so in the years to come.

Advertisement

Advertisement

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But the same congressional leaders who are moaning about Biden’s budget have no interest in repealing the cap. What will they do instead? They’ll take a flyer and put the burden of scrapping and scraping to the Pentagon’s budgeteers.

This budget or something like it is meant to take effect in fiscal year 2025, which begins this........

© Slate


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