The White House is touting President Joe Biden’s U.S. military budget for fiscal 2024 as a record, and Biden is betting busy Americans won’t look past the headlines. The truth is that he’s asking for a real defense cut, even as the U.S. is waking up late to a world of new threats.
The Pentagon’s budget request may seem large at $842 billion. But the figure is only a 3.2% increase over last year, and with inflation at 6%, it means a decline in buying power. Compare the 3.2% growth with the double-digit increases for domestic accounts: 19% for the Environmental Protection Agency; 13.6% for both the Education and Energy Departments; 11.5% for Health and Human Services.
For all the talk about a bloated Pentagon, defense in 2022 was only about 13% of the federal budget. It’s about 3% of GDP, down from 5% to 6% during the Cold War, even though America’s challenges today are arguably more numerous and acute.
China is building a world-class military to drive America out of the Pacific. Russia is committed to grinding down Ukraine and then moving its military to the Polish border. Iran may soon have a nuclear bomb. North Korea is lobbing missiles toward Japan. Hypersonics and missiles threaten the U.S. homeland.
A hefty portion of any increase will be absorbed by a 5.2% pay increase for troops and civilians, needed in part to offset Biden’s inflationary policies. The White House includes bromides about America’s “long-term commitment to the Indo-Pacific” and highlights $9.1 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
But Pacific deterrence depends on a U.S. Navy large enough to discourage bad behavior, and the goal of a 355-ship service remains a fantasy. The document promises “executable and responsible” investments in the fleet, which is a euphemism for cutting ships without adequate replacements.
The budget commits to “ongoing nuclear modernization,” but recapitalizing all three parts of the triad is a generational challenge that is straining budgets. The document nods at expanding “the production capacity of the industrial base to ensure the Army can meet strategic demands for critical munitions,” and Congress last year authorized multiyear contracts that should help. But the U.S. still isn’t procuring its best precision weapons in sufficient quantities to last more than a few weeks in a fight for Taiwan.
Biden’s largest failure is promising his budget will keep “America safe,” instead of leveling with the public about the threats and what will be required to meet them. The reality is that U.S. military power is “slowly sinking,” as a Navy admiral put it last year, and Congress will have to start plugging the hole.