How to Trim the Defense Budget Without Harming U.S. Security

The first step is deciding what the United States wants its military to do.

Members of the U.S. Army Drill Team perform in Times Square in New York City on June 12, 2015.
Members of the U.S. Army Drill Team perform in Times Square in New York City on June 12, 2015. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on and its economic toll grows, politicians and observers on both sides of the U.S. political divide have called for cuts to the national security budget in order to free up funds for more pressing items. According to this logic, the defense budget is bloated, the federal deficit continues to climb, and the Department of Defense could, and should, do more with less.

Although preparing for the next pandemic is crucial, there is no justification for trading off security abroad for safety at home when both are necessary. Observers including independent Sen. Bernie Sanders have argued that domestic threats—such as pandemics—will become a greater security concern than foreign adversaries. That’s wishful thinking. A pandemic can’t make the United States’ security problems go away—in fact, it may make them worse. The country’s leaders can no longer evade or defer hard choices, and with a period of fiscal austerity on the horizon, there is no longer room for equivocating.

In these circumstances, step one is to reaffirm what the nation wants its military to achieve. Without any guiding strategy, hard budget choices become shots in the dark. Here, the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which identified great-power competition—above all with China—as the primary challenge to U.S. national security remains key to sustaining U.S. security, freedom, and prosperity.

Underneath that broad priority, there needs to be consensus regarding the roles and missions of the U.S. armed forces and how to pursue them. And as new Air Force Chief of Staff Charles Brown explains, the U.S. military must act now to adapt to the reality of great-power competition or lose: lose time, lose battles, lose capital assets, lose people, lose credibility, and lose wars. Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has already taken steps to implement a departmentwide review of programs to look for savings. At risk are large surface combatants, Army vehicles, the size of Air Force squadrons, missile defense, and permanently forward-deployed forces.

But more trade-offs are required. And there are a few areas where change can’t come soon enough. For U.S. armed forces to prevail in a long-term great-power competition, preparing to win the big war must take precedence over the constant activities that keep hundreds of thousands of uniformed personnel navigating, driving, flying, training, and exercising around the world each day.

To that end, the Pentagon should reevaluate the utility of extended peacetime presence missions, even if the initial savings from doing so are modest. For example, as the Navy focuses more on the Pacific, leaders should reconsider allocating precious assets away from less important missions such as counter-piracy efforts in the Horn of Africa. Similarly, drug interdiction efforts should be left to the Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Closer to home, election security, however necessary, is not the job of the U.S. military, even though defense leaders recently volunteer for this duty when intelligence agencies take it on.

Where shedding missions is not feasible, cheaper methods of achieving them must be advanced. For example, Security Force Assistance Brigades could sub in for more expensive forces and methods. In the Middle East, the military continues to use high-end fighters at great costs in low-end missions, even though a light attack aircraft could accomplish reconnaissance, close air support, and strike missions in relatively uncontested environments.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon must shift away from nonstop presence, assurance, and other similar “nice to have” missions. This means redressing the fundamental tension between the ever-growing demands by combatant commanders, in particular on troops, and the challenges of keeping the force healthy and ready for a major conflict. The bottom line is that readiness for major war must trump day-to-day activities.

Furthermore, the services need mission clarity to minimize redundancies. For instance, the Air Force and the Army should ensure their deep strike capabilities are complementary rather than duplicative. Meanwhile, the services should consider whether they are all totally bought in on the Air Force’s version of a military Internet of Things, or will some hedge their bets and go it alone when there should be unity of funding and effort behind one plan.

There are still other opportunities for rapid reform. An overhaul of current platforms and systems is overdue—and early cancellation of unsustainable programs like some the Marine Corps commandant has suggested such as heavy and light attack helicopters will save time and money in the long run. Shining light on where most of the United States’ equipment dollars are spent—maintenance of existing equipment rather than production of new items—will also show where the United States could increase efficiency.

Experimental programs and prototypes should be moved into the next phase as soon as possible in order to increase oversight and allow for the divestment of legacy systems once fielded. Similarly, improving the accuracy of program cost estimates should be coupled with hard fielding schedules, throwing out two-decade timeframes for ones measured in months or years.

Currently, the budget does not reflect an intentional investment in weapons, posture, and capabilities that might give the United States an edge in the Indo-Pacific, such as unmanned systems for the Air Force and robot ships for the Navy. Two years after the release of the National Defense Strategy, it is critical that the Defense Department swiftly define fresh operational concepts that provide guidance for force development, posture, and training.

Other corners of the Pentagon appear entirely unaffected by the shift to great-power competition. Nearly two decades since its inception, the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, often referred to as the “war budget,” has had no meaningful decline despite significantly lower troop levels in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Accurately representing the true base budget of the Department of Defense, which currently spills over into the special OCO budget, will improve transparency about the alignment of U.S. resources and strategy.

COVID-19 has increased pressure on the defense budget. But it does not eliminate the importance of national security. To the contrary, as the United States enters a time of budget pressure, it is vital that Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon truly—ruthlessly—implement the National Defense Strategy as a way to make the best use of the funds available.

Elbridge Colby is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, during which time he served as the lead official in the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy and as the principal Pentagon representative in the development of the 2017 National Security Strategy.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She has served as a member of the National Defense Strategy Commission and the National Defense Panel.

Roger Zakheim is a former general counsel and deputy staff director of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee and the current director of the Reagan Institute. He also served on the 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission.

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