The justifications for President Biden’s first defense budget request are triggering déjà vu. Speaking this month before the Senate in defense of the 2022 request, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said, “Previous budgets biased … the present. This budget starts leaning into the future.” Really though, the Department of Defense’s budget is stuck on cruise control as the rest of the federal government goes on a spending spree.
A failure of imagination, the 2022 defense budget simply continues well-worn paths laid two administrations ago. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said in 2015 that his budget “would put new resources behind innovation…but it also accounts for today's fiscal realities by focusing our [sic.] investments that will sharpen our military edge even as we have to contend with fewer resources.”
As the chief architect of the “Third Offset Strategy” from 2014 through 2018, Work launched the effort to invest in advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, cyber capabilities, unmanned systems, and more to “offset—or create an overmatch of—China’s and Russia’s increased capabilities.” Unfortunately, now the Biden administration is merely continuing the trend of acknowledging the US is engaged in strategic competition with great power rivals, as affirmed by the 2018 National Defense Strategy, but underfunding key investments to match global security demands.
Research and development (RDT&E) funding is marginally up from ’21 enacted levels, which might constitute a valuable focus on modernization, were it not for the fact that procurement was cut by just over $8 billion across the department, even as spending on personnel continues to rise alongside operations and maintenance costs. When the R&D account has increased for the better part of a decade now while procurement funding drops, Congress should be worried.
Software and tech investments are important, but research and development spending spikes that do not translate to the procurement and fielding of new platforms, systems, and capabilities to the force are a poor use of limited defense dollars—size matters, not just technology. Research and development bulges that do not yield new procurement lead anywhere, and the Pentagon has no budget flexibility left. If procurement spending continues to decline based on the promise of new technology in a distant future, the current force will continue struggling to sustain a pace of operations that is jeopardizing the readiness gains made over the past few years.
Congress should be particularly concerned now because the services have real capacity needs, even as the Pentagon spends slightly more on transformative tech. All of the services asked Congress for additional capacity this year in their unfunded priorities lists to supplement the budget request. The Air Force is asking for 12 more F-15EX fighters, even as it plans to retire 48 F-15C/Ds, although it also conspicuously failed to ask for more copies of the F-35.
The Army was forced to cut projected procurement spending on combat vehicles. For example, it originally planned to spend $712 million on procurement for the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) program in FY22. Instead, its budget request for the program this year was just $575 million, with additional funding requested in the Army’s wish list to Congress. Purchases of the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV) took a hit, and a series of upgrades for the Bradley and Abrams also made the list for Congress to consider adding back dollars. It is the wrong time to underfund the Army’s tanks and armored vehicles as the Marine Corps simultaneously intentionally divests its armor capability.
Perhaps most troubling, the Navy’s future fleet is rapidly becoming anyone’s guess. Unsurprisingly, the Biden administration abandoned the Trump administration’s parting shipbuilding plans from December 2020 for a fleet of little over 400 crewed and hundreds of unmanned ships by FY 2045. That was to be expected. The Congressional Budget Office found the cost for that fleet would have required "average annual shipbuilding appropriations almost 50 percent larger than the average over the past five years." What is more worrisome is that Biden's first defense budget request did not fund the planned procurement of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, expected advanced procurement dollars for new amphibious ships went missing, and the Navy’s shipbuilding account is down overall. Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Budget Rear Adm. John Gumbleton directly said the pattern of purchasing “eight ships a year is not going to get to 355,” the Navy’s baseline fleet size goal for the early 2030s.
Congress must push the Pentagon to think beyond simply repurposing and rehashing of the Third Offset strategy and overemphasizing R&D. It is no longer a sufficient framework to address the threats facing the United States—particularly given the rapid pace at which China has modernized militarily. Congress should restore procurement funding across the board and push military leaders to seek a more balanced ratio between research and development and the building of new systems.
Pentagon leaders are touting their hard choices this year to cut readiness and procurement to spend more on research and development. However, the truly tough calls will be picking winners and losers from the R&D accounts and moving ready programs into production quickly. The approach of “let 1,000 flowers bloom” is over. Putting meaningful new capability into the hands of warfighters in the next one to five years is the more serious solution to a here-and-now problem and a major missed opportunity of the Biden defense budget.