With 40 days until the U.S. presidential election, everyone’s trying to read the tea leaves about what a Joe Biden administration would mean for defense.
Here’s the latest from Doug Berenson, a managing partner at Avascent who works in the consulting firm’s defense systems practice.
“I actually think there would be far more continuity in defense under a Biden administration from what we've seen during the Trump years than most people probably think,” Berenson said on a Thursday morning webcast.
That’s partly because Biden isn’t expected to dabble in the specifics of weapons programs and foreign arms sales the way Trump has.
“A Biden White House is just not going to want to spend limited political capital, on the kinds of issues that are foremost in the minds of the defense industry, or those in the Pentagon who think about defense modernization and force planning,” Berenson said.
But one area that could see a shift is in the plans for nuclear weapons: new ICBMs, ballistic missile submarines, and the B-21 bomber.
“I think in strategic nuclear forces, a Biden administration could set the Pentagon on a notably different policy path with implications for a handful of major modernization programs,” Berenson said.
He predicted a Biden administration would renew the New START treaty with Russia, while a second Trump administration would let it expire. This could set the U.S. on two very different paths of modernizing Cold War-era nuclear weapons.
If New START is not renewed, “the U.S. would gain much greater flexibility and how to modernize and potentially expand parts of the nuclear deterrence force. By contrast, the Biden administration would not want to go down that path.”
“I think it's possible that the US might consider doing away with the land-based leg of the nuclear triad.”
The would mean retiring the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile and canceling its replacement, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. The Air Force earlier this month awarded Northrop Grumman a $13.3 billion contract to begin work on those new ICBMs.
“Now it's also possible, but not assured, that the Biden administration might also think about a rethink of the airborne leg of the triad, and that would call into question the Long Range Standoff Weapon program, which Raytheon Technologies is set to develop,” Berenson said.
But, he said, that doesn’t mean the planes that would carry those weapons would go away.
“The B-21 bomber program and the effort to re-engine the B-52 bomber fleet — those would probably continue as they are currently planned, because both those bomber programs are highly relevant to conventional deterrence missions, in addition to their nuclear roles,” he said.
The former vice president can also be expected to try to heal overseas relationships that have been damaged by Trump, Berenson said.
“I think a Biden administration will put very high priority on international engagement, in terms of mending fences with America's friends and allies,” he said.
Overall defense spending, as we told you in July, may depend even more on whether Democrats can take back the Senate. The Trump administration’s fiscal 2021 budget proposal projects fairly flat funding through 2025, not the 3 percent to 5 percent annual increases that defense leaders have called for.
“[T]hat is probably the most that the Pentagon can realistically hope for under a Biden administration,” Berenson said. “I think if Trump is reelected, there might be some room for growth above this level, but not much and not on a sustained basis. And certainly nowhere near enough to get to the level that Secretary Esper, and Secretary Mattis before him, have called for.”
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