Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Joe Biden’s $778B Defense Budget Goes Unnoticed But His $170B Social Agenda Triggers A Huge Debate

The House of Representatives passing President Joe Biden’s contentious legislation on social spending and climate plan that will be a package of $1.7 trillion over the next 10 years has become a big debating issue in the United States.

But nothing comparable is noticed when the same Biden administration is proposing a far more expensive bill – the annual Pentagon budget. If the Pentagon budget is passed, and there is the remotest possibility of it being voted out in the US Congress, it will be one of the largest military spending bills in American history, analysts say.

It amounts to $778 billion in spending in 2022, compared to the approximately $170 billion in spending that Biden’s social policy would entail next year.

According to Stephen Semler, cofounder of the US think-tank ‘Security Policy Reform Institute’, the US military budgets over the next decade will cost about $8.31 trillion. This amount, Semler says, is not only many times more than Biden’s social policy and climate plans but also larger than the combined total of all his big-ticket agenda of American Rescue plan, Bipartisan Infrastructural Law and reconciliation package.

And all this despite the fact that the US generally spends around 40 percent of the global total of defense expenditure, which is more than the rest of the top 10 countries put together.

Americans Love Superpower Status

But then, there is more to it than meets the eye. Not many Americans will like the fact that other countries, particularly China, to ever catch up with their country, the world’s most formidable military power.

If one goes beyond the statistics of military expenditure of the countries that establish the American pre-eminence and realizes the military purchasing power parity (military PPP), as developed by Peter Robertson, a professor at the University of Western Australia (it adjusts defense budgets based on how they are allocated among wages, operating costs and equipment, and how local prices vary in each of these areas), China is not far behind the US.

US Army
US Army paratroopers. (via Twitter)

The PPP figures make America look far less dominant, indeed. “At market exchange rates, SIPRI’s estimate of China’s spending is $252bn, just one-third of America’s; at PPP, it jumps to two-thirds (the official Chinese figure is just $184bn in nominal dollars, but is seen as unrealistically low)”, argues Robertson.

And this perhaps explains why President Biden said recently, “That’s not going to happen on my watch,” regarding China’s “goal to become…the most powerful country in the world.”

Incidentally, the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative American think-tank,  released its eighth annual “Index of US Military Strength, 2022” last month, stating the American armed forces are only “marginally” capable of meeting national security needs at home and abroad. It also “documented a steady decline in various aspects of US military strength” since 2015.

“Even with advances in certain areas, the force is still insufficient to defend America’s interests and partners in a conflict involving multiple fronts around the globe, and indeed, other aspects of the force are degrading rapidly,” Heritage says.

Need To Strengthen US Military

The 600-page report states that the US military is “likely capable” of winning one regional conflict but would “certainly would be ill-equipped to handle two” simultaneously. “No matter how much America desires that the world be a simpler, less threatening place that is more inclined to beneficial economic interactions than violence-laden friction, the patterns of history show that competing powers consistently emerge and that the US must be able to defend its interests in more than one region at a time. Consequently, this Index embraces the two-war or two-contingency requirement.”

Arguing that Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and terrorist groups in the Middle East and Afghanistan remain “actual or potential threat”, the Heritage index concluded with the following assessments:

Army as ‘Marginal’

The Army’s score remains “marginal” in the 2022 Index. The Army has sustained its commitment to modernizing its forces for great-power competition, but its modernization programs are still in their development phase, and it will be a few years before they are ready for acquisition and fielding. In other words, the Army is aging faster than it is modernizing.

It remains “weak” in capacity with only 62 percent of the force it should have. However, 58 percent (18) of its 31 Regular Army BCTs are at the highest state of readiness, thus earning a score of “very strong” and conveying the sense that the service knows what it needs to do to prepare for the next major conflict. That said, its capability score remains “marginal” given the age of its equipment and the size and maturity of its modernization programs.

Navy as ‘Marginal’, Trending Toward ‘Weak’

The Navy’s current battle force fleet of 296 ships and intensified operational tempo combine to reveal a service that is much too small relative to its tasks, resulting in a capacity score of “weak,” which is unchanged from the 2021 Index. It desperately needs a larger fleet of 400 ships, but current and forecast levels of funding will prevent this from occurring for the foreseeable future.

This has the unhappy effect of causing the service to age more rapidly than it can replace older ships, thus making it easier for major competitors to achieve technological parity. It also has made it difficult for the Navy to conduct the training essential to achieving high levels of readiness. Consequently, the Navy is rated “marginal” on a downward slope to “weak” in readiness.

Air Force as ‘Weak’

This is a downgrade from an assessment of “marginal” in the 2021 Index. Though the Air Force possesses 86 percent of the combat aircraft that this Index recommends, public reporting of the mission readiness and physical location of these planes would make it difficult for the Air Force to respond rapidly to a crisis.

Additionally, the need to source these aircraft from all locations for a single major fight would likely preclude a response to any other major combat action. Modernization programs are generally healthy, but the advanced age of key aircraft in the Air Force’s inventory is driving the service to retire planes faster than they can be replaced, leading to a capability score of “marginal.”

The service also lost ground in readiness compared with the preceding year. A score of “weak” in this area is the result of a shortage of pilots and flying time that implies a lack of effort or focused intent given the general reduction in operational deployments as US actions overseas have ebbed.

Marine Corps as ‘Strong’

The score for the Marine Corps was raised to “strong” from “marginal” for two reasons: (1) because the 2021 Index changed the threshold for capacity, lowering it from 36 infantry battalions to 30 battalions in acknowledgment of the Corps’ argument that it is a one-war force that also stands ready for a broad range of smaller crisis-response tasks, and (2) because of the Corps’ extraordinary efforts to modernize (which improves capability) and enhance its readiness during the assessed year.

However, in the absence of additional funding in FY 2022, the Corps intends to reduce the number of its battalions even further from 24 to 21, and this reduction, if implemented, would harm the Corps’ overall ability to perform the role it has set for itself: enabling the projection of naval power into heavily contested combat environments. The service has moved ahead aggressively with a redesign of its operating forces and the acquisition of new warfighting tools, but it remains hampered by old equipment and problematic funding.

Space Force as ‘Weak’

The Space Force was formally established on December 20, 2019, as a result of an earlier proposal by President Trump and legislation passed by Congress. The 2021 Index provided an overview of the new service, explaining its mission, capabilities, and challenges, but did not offer an assessment. With an additional year to gain more insight, the 2022 Index scores the USSF as “weak” in all measured areas.

The service has done quite well in transitioning missions from the other services without interruption in support, but it does not have enough assets to track and manage the explosive growth in commercial and competitor-country systems being placed into orbit. The majority of its platforms have exceeded their planned life span, and modernization efforts to replace them are slow and incremental. The force also lacks defensive and offensive counter-space capabilities.

US Space Systems Command
US Space Systems Command. (via Twitter)

Nuclear Capability as ‘Strong’ but Trending Toward ‘Marginal’ or even ‘Weak’

 This is the opposite of the conclusion reached in the 2021 Index, which reported a trend from “marginal” to “strong.” The grade of “strong” recognizes the Trump Administration’s commitment to reversing the decline in the U.S. nuclear enterprise and the Biden Administration’s decision to sustain the commitment to modernization of the entire nuclear enterprise—warheads, platforms, command and control, personnel, and infrastructure—and allocate needed resources accordingly.

Without this commitment, this overall score will degrade rapidly to “weak.” Progress in modernization efforts, combined with assurances from senior leaders that the forces remain reliable, warrants a more optimistic assessment than we have been able to provide in previous editions.

That being said, this score of “strong” with a conditional trend toward “marginal” or “weak” reflects a greater risk of degradation in nuclear deterrence than has been seen in the recent past. Current forces are assessed as reliable today, but nearly all components of the nuclear enterprise are at a tipping point with respect to replacement or modernization and have no margin left for delays in schedule. Failure of on-time appropriations and lack of support from the Administration for nuclear modernization could lead to a rapid decline in this portfolio to “weak” in future editions.

Liberals Downplay External Threats

Predictably, the left/liberals and pacifists have termed the above indeed as “index of distortions”. Analyst William Hartung says that the Heritage “grades” are misleading in the extreme.

His argument is that there is no probability of the US fighting Russia and China together. According to him, threats from China are economic, not military. “The goal of U.S. strategy should be to deter and prevent aggressive behavior that threatens the U.S. homeland or close U.S. allies, and the means for doing so need not be primarily military”, he says.

US warships in the South China Sea
US warships in the South China Sea. (via Twitter)

Hartung is of the opinion that problems of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons or North Korea expanding its arsenal are not amenable to military solutions and that diplomacy is the best option in both cases.

Pacifists like Andrew J. Bacevich and Annelle Sheline argue that Pentagon’s “purpose is not defense: it is power projection”. For them, America should not spend money unnecessarily for what happens in the South China Sea or the Middle East as the real security concerns of the US are “wildfires, hurricanes, floods, pandemics, and porous borders here at home, not to mention quelling the occasional insurrection”.

Accordingly, they advise Biden to allocate “more money to agencies such as the Coast Guard, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Border Patrol, with the army, navy, and air force obliged to get by with a bit less.”

But it seems that ultimately the US President has not antagonized the Pentagon, or for that matter what the critics will like to include “the military-industrial complex”, which, in turn, would prefer to hear any day what the Heritage says. The Pentagon has won.

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. CONTACT: [email protected]
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