The Pentagon Can’t Afford All of the Weapons It Wants, New Report Says

Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Monday, March 2, 2020.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Monday, March 2, 2020.

Based on projected funding levels, the military will be forced to choose winners and losers among its priority projects.

The Pentagon cannot afford all of the new weapons it wants to buy and will be forced to choose winners and losers, absent an influx of cash, a new assessment from data and analytics firm Govini.

More cash is unlikely, experts say, regardless of whether President Trump wins a second term or is defeated by his Democratic challenger Joe Biden. Moreover, they predict the Pentagon will face increased competition for dollars as the United States tries to dig itself out of a recession brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, which has left more than 30 million American without jobs.

“I don’t see a Biden administration making big, big cuts to defense,” said Robert Work, a deputy defense secretary during the Obama administration who is now chairman of Govini, an artificial intelligence-driven analysis firm. “But what I see a potential Biden administration doing is defining the priorities within defense in a different way.”

A Biden White House could make preparing for a pandemic and climate change national security priorities, Work said. The Obama administration considered climate change a national security threat.

“But no matter what happens,” Work said, “there’s going to be a new National Security Strategy and a new National Defense Strategy and there will be new priorities, without question.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said the Pentagon needs 3 percent to 5 percent annual growth in its coffers to make investments in new weapons. 

The Trump administration has asked Congress to approve a $740.5 billion defense budget for fiscal 2021. The Pentagon’s share of that budget request: $705 billion — much the rest goes to the Energy Department for nuclear weapons projects. Pentagon budget documents forecast a $722 billion spending request for fiscal 2022, a 2.4 percent increase.

That projection is likely to change as it was forecast well before the coronavirus pandemic prompted Congress to approve trillions of dollars in stimulus funding. 

“But there may be pressures to lower the deficit in FY-21 and so you might see a big recision drill,” Work said. 

And there’s also the results of November’s presidential election.

“I don’t expect a major perturbation in ‘21, but ‘22 is wide open,” Work said. “The way I’m handicapping it is: ‘22 and out is going to be really, really tough and it will only get tougher depending on the pressure from the top and whether or not the defense [budget] really starts to decline.”

Flat or reduced spending would prompt decisions, like whether to buy new weapons or improve existing ones. The military has spent billions of dollars developing new technology for weapons, but much of it has not yet been put into serial production. 

With future funding in question, the Pentagon has expedited a number of expensive weapons deals, including a new class of Navy frigates. When Boeing said it would not enter a bid on an $85 billion program to build new nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Air Force said it would move forward with Northrop Grumman, the only other bidder, instead of delaying the project to ensure competition.

If Trump remains in the White House, defense spending changes are still expected.

“The shelflife of the 2018 National Defense Strategy is about a year to 18 months,” Work said, referring to the document that forecasts greater competition with Russia and China and fewer counterinsurgency conflicts in the military’s future.

Work said he does not see the Pentagon’s major security concerns outlined in the National Defense Strategy going away in a Biden administration, however, he sees additional areas of focus.

“I don’t see a major cut in defense spending coming out of a Democratic administration, although I could be wrong,” he said. “But I do see different national security priorities that would make the adjustments within the department more difficult. There’d just be more priorities to try to spread the money around.”

Defense spending is already in the crosshairs of progressive Democrats in the House who have called for cuts to defense spending to boost the funding for the government’s coronavirus response.

“With a shift in strategy, we can be safer while spending less,” said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at Center for International Policy. “I think we could cut the budget by at least 10% to 15% from current levels, for savings of over $1.2 trillion over the next decade that could be shifted to more urgent priorities like dealing with and preventing pandemics and addressing the greatest risk of all — climate change.”

Scaling back major weapon projects, like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and cutting the size of the Army and the Marine Corps are among the ways to cut the Pentagon’s budget, Hartung said. He also points to a 2019 report that recommends scaling back nuclear weapons, cutting war spending, the number of private contractors and the newly created U.S. Space Force as ways to save money.

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