The Fight Over The Defense Budget Lingers On

Policymakers continue to progress toward implementing a viable defense budget.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told reporters that the Senate would vote on a House-passed bill to fund the military. "The Senate will take up an uncontroversial measure that passed the House with a comfortable bipartisan majority," McConnell said.

Negotiations over defense have been an important element in the federal budget debacle that led recently to a government shutdown. Part of the budget signed by President Trump ending that short shutdown included a $94 billion immediate increase in military spending.

What is important to understand is that the ongoing defense budget debate is not merely about numbers, but rather concerns about the long-term future of the US military.    

Early last week, it was reported that the permission for increased defense spending was being pushed hard by the administration. The goal, according to the White House, was to attain a $716 billion budget for the 2019 fiscal year, requiring the raising of the budget by several hundred billion dollars. President Trump, speaking at an annual Republican congressional retreat, told those present “you know, our military has been depleted over the last long period of time, even beyond [former President] Obama….It’s been depleted. We’ve got to build up. This should not be a party thing; this should be common sense. Without our military, we might not be here talking. We have to have a strong military.” The recently passed bill goes beyond even what Trump himself had advocated for.

What lies beneath this need to “build up the depleted military” is a major shift in defense strategy that has been building traction within the administration. The first time this shift was laid out clearly to the public was in a mid-January speech at the Pentagon, by Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The speech came following the publishing by the Defense Department of the “National Defense Strategy” report, the first of its kind to be produced by the executive branch since 2014. The report calls on the US military to move away from its emphasis on less pressing global threats and priorities, instead addressing the competing “great powers,” namely China and Russia. In his speech, Mattis called China and Russia “revisionist powers” that “seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models.”

Secretary Mattis is right to demand a shift of focus to Russia and China. For the past decade and a half, the US has been distracted strategically by jihadists and the never-ending slew of Middle East conflicts. As many observers have pointed out, this has given both China and Russia significant breathing room in which to consolidate and build up strategic assets.  

Alluding to the need to prepare the military for more conventional, large-scale operations, Secretary Mattis commented that the increase in military spending was necessary in order to bring “readiness,” “modernization,” and “deterrent” force to the military. "You look at the strategy, and you see where it's going."

While the foresight of the administration and the Pentagon, in particular, may be wise, it is difficult to say how much of a role this fact will play in the ongoing budget debates on the Hill.

The more frugal elements of Congress do not look prepared to give in on the massive spending increase. Additionally, recent reports on $800 million in unaccounted for funds at the Pentagon will likely not help the Defense Department’s bid for more money.

The passing of this budget will mean more than just ships to the navy and fighter planes to the airforce. A budget increase like this signals a major shift in the long-term strategy of US defense.

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