What Clinton’s Foreign Affairs Article May Mean for the Defense Budget
Her approach, more rebalancing rather than modernizing, avoids a simple zero-sum frame of defense vs. non-defense spending.
In a recent Foreign Affairs article, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argues that the COVID-19 crisis should prompt the United States to rethink its national security priorities. She proposes a two-pronged approach that would modernize the military at a reduced cost and re-invest the savings from this in domestic research and development and manufacturing capabilities. While much of the article focuses on the failures of the Trump administration and the need to rebuild the diplomatic and economic instruments of national power, her proposed changes to defense provide a glimpse of what may be the priorities of a Biden administration. Secretary Clinton does not provide all of the details for her defense plans nor does she specifically identify from where all the savings would come. But it is worth unpacking some of the specifics she does provide to understand what the budget implications could be if this approach were adopted by a new administration.
First, it is worth noting that there is inherent tension between modernizing and cutting the budget. But Clinton uses the term “modernization” throughout the article to include retiring existing weapons. It is true that buying new military equipment often means retiring the old equipment it is meant to replace, but not always. One can modernize without retiring older equipment, and it is possible to retire weapons without modernizing. Moreover, some of the weapons she calls out by name for reductions are in fact the latest generation of technology—ones that are currently in production. Her approach is more rebalancing rather than modernizing.
Her article does not propose a significant shift in strategy, with the focus remaining on great power competition with Russia and China, as articulated in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Using the “ends, ways, and means” strategic framework, her approach keeps the “ends” (or objectives) of the strategy essentially the same; it alters the “ways” to focus more on diplomacy, partnerships, and innovative technologies; and it reduces the “means” by proposing a net reduction in the budget. Trying to achieve the same ends with fewer means through innovative ways may ultimately mean accepting more risks.
Clinton’s approach is based on the idea that savings in defense would be used to invest in domestic priorities. She writes, “Deep savings—potentially hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade—can and should be found by retiring legacy weapons systems.” Some analysts have noted that she endorses Joe Biden’s plan “to invest $700 billion in innovation and manufacturing” as further indication of the magnitude of savings she thinks can be achieved. But she does not directly connect the defense cuts to the cost of the Biden innovation plan, so it is not safe to assume that she means $700 billion in defense cuts. She only says the defense cuts could amount to “hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade,” which just means something more than $10 billion per year over ten years. Moreover, the cuts (and new investments) she describes come nowhere near $700 billion in savings over ten years.
In terms of specific cuts, the program she takes on most directly is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, citing its dependence on vulnerable close-in bases due to its short range. As the single largest acquisition program in the Defense Department, the F-35 is a natural target and one that has suffered its share of setbacks. For better or worse, the program enjoys significant support on the Hill, with Congress appropriating more money for F-35s than the military has requested for many years running. She does not propose a specific cut for the program, which is projected to consume some $126 billion over the next ten years. But to understand the magnitude of potential savings, cutting the planned number of F-35s procured over the next decade by a third (324 fewer planes) could save around $38 billion. In contrast to the F-35, Clinton voices strong support for the B-21 bomber program because of its greater range.
Clinton targets the Navy for cuts, citing the vulnerability of surface ships to Chinese anti-ship missiles. Her solution is that “instead of continuing to expand the fleet of vulnerable surface ships, the navy should invest in accelerated maintenance and next-generation submarines.” Savings could be achieved by reducing the number of new surface combatants being procured, although the Navy is already committed to buying the next two Ford-class aircraft carriers. Savings from reducing other surface combatants, however, could easily be offset by the costs of additional Virginia-class subs. Without knowing the specifics of the approach, it is reasonable to think that such a rebalancing could be near cost-neutral – rather than cost-saving – within the Navy.
The Army would perhaps be the most at risk of cuts under Clinton’s approach. She writes about shifting focus away from the land wars of the past two decades to the “potential air, sea, and space conflicts” of the future. She proposes cutting some of the Army’s active-component armored brigade combat teams, or BCTs, to “save tens of billions of dollars over the next decade.” The Army plans to have 11 active armored BCTs, and cutting just one could save more than $30 billion over ten years—assuming you cut all of the direct, indirect, and overhead personnel associated with it. But the net savings for the Army would be much less, because she also calls for new investments in the Army’s communications and intelligence systems and for the tank factory in Lima, Ohio, to be repurposed to replace the military’s fleet of “200,000 nontactical vehicles with electric [vehicles].”
When it comes to nuclear weapons, Clinton writes that the military “should not be deploying low-yield nuclear warheads on submarines or nuclear-armed cruise missiles.” There is some ambiguity in this statement because it is not clear whether she is referring to sea-based cruise missiles only or all nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Assuming it is the former, these changes would have minimal budgetary effects. The low-yield nuclear warheads were already deployed by the Trump administration and taking them out of the arsenal would yield few appreciable savings. Moreover, the Trump administration has not yet budgeted for a new sea-based, nuclear-armed cruise missile, so eliminating this program (which in theory could cost as much $9 billion) would avoid incurring new costs rather than saving money already in the budget. She also calls on the military to “significantly reduce its reliance on old intercontinental ballistic missiles, [and] pursue a ‘newer and fewer’ approach to modernization.” The Air Force is already in the process of replacing its aging fleet of Minuteman III ICBMs, and any reduction in the total number of missiles would likely come near the end of the planned production run in the late 2030s—beyond the window for savings over the next decade.
Clinton’s overall approach to defense savings hinges on retiring weapons and cutting force structure. She rightly points out that it is “hard to retire aging weapons systems or close bases that have outlived their usefulness” because of the local economic and political effects it can have. She offers herself as an example, noting that as a senator, “I knew how much the [defense] jobs meant for my constituents, and I was convinced that each of the appropriations had national security merit.”
This is exactly the problem. The difficulty with rebalancing the defense budget and cutting existing weapons is more political than strategic. Someone can make a logical argument that each and every item in the defense budget, with the possible exception of military bands, contributes in some way to national security. While some things are more effective, efficient, and strategically relevant than others—a subject that strategists and planners can debate endlessly—no weapon, military unit, military base, technology investment, or defense-related job is completely without value. Each item in the defense budget is important to someone. Even military bands.
To address this issue, Clinton proposes that Congress should agree “to take an up-or-down vote on a comprehensive package of defense reforms,” comparing it to the same approach used for base closures in the past. The Future of Defense Task Force similarly recommended that a panel be convened with representatives from Congress, DOD, and the defense industry to recommend what weapons should be retired, but it stopped short of saying that the panel’s recommendations should be given an up-or-down vote. While in theory this would be a sound approach, in practice it is unlikely Congress would yield so much control over such an important and divisive set of policy issues. The most recent push to authorize an up-or-down voting process for another round of base closures was championed in 2017 by the late Sen. John McCain. But even with the support of his Democratic counterpart on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed and the backing of the Pentagon, they could not get a new base closure process enacted into law. The scope of the defense reform package Senator Clinton proposes would be orders of magnitude larger in terms of the policy and budgetary impacts than a round of base closures.
Beyond its specific proposals and overall approach to national security, Clinton’s Foreign Affairs article provides insight into a possible negotiating stance with Republicans in Congress on the defense budget. Rather than framing the budget debate as a simple zero-sum trade between defense and non-defense spending, her approach leaves open the possibility of a non-zero-sum compromise. Clinton notes that “critics will no doubt warn that running up the national debt is itself a national security risk,” but then goes on to assert that “there is a growing consensus among economists that Washington need not be paralyzed by fears of debt.” While not quite saying that deficits don’t matter, her article certainly leans in that direction. In the end, the Clinton approach to defense reform may be less about cutting hundreds of billions from defense than it is about creating negotiating space for domestic priorities.
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