Congress Draws Battle Lines for Pentagon Budget Fight

Biden’s move to slash dozens of older planes and drones is being met with resistance on Capitol Hill.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Lloyd Austin testifies to become next U.S. defense secretary.
Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to be the next U.S. secretary of defense in Washington, on Jan. 19. Greg Nash/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

It’s a story as old as time. The U.S. Defense Department releases a budget cutting the U.S. military’s older systems and investing in futuristic weapons. And members of Congress, their districts at risk of losing jobs, manufacturing, and military bases, put the money back in. 

That’s exactly the tussle U.S. President Joe Biden’s Pentagon budget, with a slimmer $715 billion top line and several billion dollars more in divestments, is triggering among defense officials, the uniformed services, and Congress. And depending on which lawmaker you ask, the eye-popping budget might be too much or too little–but almost nobody is saying it’s just right.

Given that last year’s budget, which prevailed after a veto from then-U.S. President Donald Trump in December 2020, failed to make similar divestments requested by the Pentagon, there’s little optimism on Capitol Hill the Defense Department will get its way this time as lawmakers dig in for an extended budget brawl that will last until Congress puts the finishing touches on the bill. 

“Most of the divestments didn’t make it last year,” a congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity regarding budget deliberations, told Foreign Policy. “It’s going to be a long process for the divestment section of the budget this year, just based on [the fact that] a lot of the fights are going to be exactly the same as they were last year.” 

The Biden administration began facing both upward and downward pressure on the budget top line, which controversially doesn’t track with inflation, even before the documents hit the web on Friday. Sen. Jim Inhofe and Rep. Mike Rogers, the top Republicans overseeing the Pentagon in Congress, called the budget “wholly inadequate” 15 minutes before it was publicly unveiled. The Air Force’s decision to scrap 200 aircraft, including dozens of beloved A-10 Thunderbolt IIs (known as A-10 Warthogs), was met with widespread protest. And sea power-focused Democrats launched into the Biden administration for trying to slash littoral combat ships and buying just eight new vessels, which also caused gripes from Republicans in shipbuilding states.

The trend was already on display as military services got the first hack at trying to shoehorn their wish lists into the budget after the long weekend with unfunded priority lists that aim to correct what the White House left out. 

On Tuesday, the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines submitted wish lists totaling more than $19 billion that would add more F-35s, Chinook helicopters, and long-range tankers and transport aircraft, in some cases sidestepping the Biden administration’s desire to shift more money toward next-generation weapons. The moves, if adopted by Congress, would reverse a 20 percent downturn in aircraft procurement across the services, a sign the military is worried the Biden administration is taking on too much near-term risk with its forward-looking approach. 

The U.S. Air Force wants more than $4 billion added to its budget for the upcoming year, according to documents obtained by Foreign Policy, including funds to buy a dozen new fourth-generation F-15EX fighter jets in a bid to refurbish its aging fleet and more money to deal with an engine shortage plaguing the troubled F-35 program.

It’s a move likely to draw the ire of Democrats in Congress who have become increasingly outspoken in their criticism of the costly F-35 fighter jet program. Pentagon officials have conceded the shortage of a Pratt & Whitney engine for the aircraft is leading to a monthslong slowdown in getting planes back on the flight line.

Although some Republicans had hoped for upwards of 100 F-35s to get into the budget, the troubled program has become a whipping post for Democrats who see the Pentagon as a poor steward of taxpayer money. “We have to stop wasting money by overpaying for underperforming products,” House Armed Services Committee Chairperson Adam Smith wrote in Defense News last week. “There must be real consequences and accountability for failures that result from lack of diligence.”

But the Air Force’s $212.8 billion budget submitted to Congress last week calling for adding research dollars to modernize the F-35 and develop a sixth-generation fighter jet while asking Congress to divest away from popular aircraft like the A-10 Warthog, refueling tankers, the C-130 cargo plane, and the RQ-4 surveillance drone is already being met by stiff opposition from lawmakers likely to see cuts in their own districts. Members of the Arizona congressional delegation sent out a statement on Friday protesting the divestiture of A-10s based in the state. Similarly, the Army is also asking defense planners to turn back the clock, asking for five new Chinook helicopters. 

And the Navy, which would face a penalty for breaking a 10-ship contract on cruiser purchases under its initial request, is also asking for $1.66 billion more to buy an additional destroyer in its supplemental request released Tuesday and first reported by Aviation Week, the largest item in a $5.6 billion request that also includes lines for five more F-35C Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. 

This is an inconsistent policy that will leave the Navy shorthanded of a ship that can perform air warfare command to support our aircraft carriers,” House Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee Chairperson Joe Courtney said in a statement on Friday. “In addition, cutting a destroyer will negatively impact a fragile industrial base, which depends on stable and predictable production.”

The service is also catching significant heat on Capitol Hill and in national security circles for cutting back on planned increases to shipbuilding. Navy officials all but conceded last week the shipbuilding budget would not meet the pace of Trump’s 355 ship goal that became popular even among some congressional Democrats. 

“I would tell you that eight ships a year is not going to get to 355,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Budget Rear Adm. John Gumbleton told reporters on Friday. “And so all things being equal, if you have a 300-ship navy and a 30-year life, you have to recapitalize at 10 per year, and so eight is not going to do it.” 

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch