The Defense Budget Process Is Broken
What the U.S. needs isn’t more money for the Pentagon, but an honest and tough debate about strategy.
Every spring and summer, Washington, D.C., goes through the familiar, laborious exercise otherwise known as the defense authorization process. The White House sends a defense budget request to Congress, military officials testify on behalf of the request, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill eventually wrangle with themselves about the size of the top-line and how much should be doled out for procurement, readiness, and research and development. When the months-long process is over, the Pentagon is often given more money than it asked for. True to form, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees both agreed this year to hike Biden’s $740 billion defense request by $25 billion and $24 billion respectively.
For those who believe more funds for the Pentagon are necessary to deter China and Russia simultaneously, this process works well enough. But for those more concerned about developing and executing a U.S. national security strategy that is realistic and financially sustainable, the current defense budget process is hardly encouraging. While administration officials and lawmakers spend considerable time engaging in a healthy discussion about numbers, they are largely uninterested in discussing the strategy behind those numbers overseas military posture (U.S. servicemembers are operating in more than 75 percent of the world’s countries). What the U.S. needs isn’t more of the same, but rather an honest, tough, and vitally important debate about the underlying strategy. This will require U.S. officials to review the U.S. global force posture with an eye on trimming its military presence in some regions and altering it in others.
The Middle East is one region of the world where a reevaluation in the U.S. troop presence is long overdue. At one point reaching a high of 150,000 U.S. military personnel during the George W. Bush administration, President Biden has chipped away at the U.S. posture in the region by removing anti-missile systems and aircraft from Saudi Arabia and concluding America’s 20-year long war in Afghanistan. But Biden’s moves thus far have been incremental; there are still about 60,000 U.S. troops in the Middle East spread out across 11 countries, from Egypt in the west to Oman in the southeast. Yet the U.S. doesn’t need tens of thousands of service members in a region that comprises roughly about 4 percent of the world’s total GDP and whose most valuable commodity—oil—is driven more by market forces than by where, how, and how many U.S. forces are sent at any given time. Nor is there an emerging hegemon on the horizon that could much disrupt the flow of Middle Eastern oil to the market; as violent and dysfunctional as the Middle East is today, the balance of power is quite stable.
Europe could use a U.S. troop reduction as well. According to the Defense Department’s most recent quarterly personnel report, there are more than 60,000 active-duty U.S. forces stationed on the continent. While this is a significant change from the 300,000 U.S. troops deployed to Europe in the late-1980s, the current U.S. posture is more a reflection of inertia than based on a realistic assessment of Europe’s security situation. Whereas hundreds of thousands of forward-deployed U.S. troops may have been necessary to prevent Soviet dominance in Eurasia, today’s Europe is far from helpless. The European Union is more prosperous, more independent, and less at risk of an invasion than it has ever been. Although a pernicious influence on Ukraine and Georgia and apt at putting its cyber capabilities to work against European entities, Russia is hardly the looming conventional threat to the West it is often made out to be. Keeping the current U.S. force structure in place may be counterproductive to a major U.S. objective in Europe: encouraging European governments to take primary responsibility for their own security.
In Asia, the Biden administration is seeking to execute a pivot to the region as a way to solidify U.S. security partnerships and balance a rising China. The Biden White House has made its concerns with China well known in public speeches and through its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, where it described the largest Asian power as “the only competitor potentially capable” of challenging the rules-based order. But forward-deploying U.S. missile systems, prodding Asian allies to host U.S. land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, and conducting largely symbolic freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan Strait is both expensive to maintain and potentially dangerous, for it could result in even more aggressive behavior from Beijing.
A better, more efficient strategy would be to provide states in the region, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines specifically, with the military capabilities they require (anti-ship, surface-to-air, and air-to-air missiles, mobile launchers, and submarines) to ensure China understands that any offensive military action in the Asia-Pacific would be long, painful, and costly to its own economy and reputation.
To date, none of these options have been seriously considered in Washington. The status quo, whereby the U.S. military is ordered to maintain Cold War-legacy deployments in Europe, serve as the first line of defense in Asia, and sit in place in the Middle East, will erode the force over the long term. A lack of imagination is baked into the defense budget process. The sooner this changes, the better
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.