I am all too often asked why I rarely make comment on the drama that occurs almost each and every year in respect of the US defense budget plans and the struggle to get this through the US Senate. The reason is very simple – the issue is hugely complicated and always of course, very political but then, it has always to be said that defense across the western world is most often a political choice. I will keep it short but this is my reading of where the situation in respect of US defence spending for 2022 currently lies:
The US Senate’s decision to block the National Defense Authorisation Act (NDAA) on Monday following predominantly Republican based objections and amendment votes was, to say the least, unwelcome by the Biden administration. Most usually but not always, the NDAA tends to receive bi-partisan support but this year is clearly going to be an exception.
While Congress had passed a continuing resolution (meaning funding levels remain set at previous year levels) – this at least keeping the Pentagon and the rest of government funded through December 3rd – the decision to block the NDAA on Monday is another serious blow. It may well be that the issue drags through into 2022 before being resolved.
My understanding of the system (I always stand to be corrected!) is that only when and if Senate finally approves a version of NDAA can legislators from both Senate and House meet to iron out differences of which there appear to be many. Out of interest, the GAO (see this as the equivalent of our NAO) has said that since 2010 the Pentagon has been forced to operate under a continuing resolution from anywhere between 76 and 216 day
Does it matter to us? The answer is yes it does because what the US does in respect of defense strategy and spending sends signals to everyone else – allies and adversaries alike. To the latter it shows that there is dissent, weakness and maybe, opportunity – to the former it might be seen as something to hide behind and a possible excuse to follow suit.
Senate appropriators had been suggesting a nearly $24 billion increase to the defense budget, one that would put the Pentagon more in line with the National Defense Strategy, further complicate plans to divest of legacy-based systems and dash hopes of reining in military spending.
To that end they unveiled a near $726 billion budget for the Defense Department in 2022 – this placing a large emphasis on extra funding for procurement of new aircraft and ships and roughly $29 billion in excess of the 2021 defense base budget. Another $14 billion funding is set aside for Pentagon spending on military based construction and energy appropriations bills, bringing the total budget plan to around $740 billion.
The Biden administration had requested $706 billion for DoD base funding within its 2022 budget request and in researching the issue it seems that House appropriators had stuck along similar lines with their bill. With military construction and energy added in, the overall request totalled $715 billion.
Having struggled since April to get the Bidens administrations 2022 Defense Budget through, the House did at least pass a $768 billion defense budget in October. From a procurement aspect authorised $28.4 billion for 13 new Navy ships, including three Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and two Virginia-class attack submarines, purchase of 85 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters and 24 Boeing F-15EX jets for the US Air Force. Out of interest, there was also a pay-increase provision of 2.7% for troops and a requirement that generals and admirals need to be out of the military for ten years before they can serve a defense secretary – up from the present seven years!
In respect of ships, the Biden plan envisaged the US Navy having a total number of 321 manned ships by 2030 ((the current level is I believe 294 ships) but that in the shorter term procuring only 8 new ships against a planned number of 15 retirals.
The Biden submission in regard of ships has drawn significant criticism as not being sufficient to counter the threat from China with one senior member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff calling for the Army budget to be cut in order to provide more new ships for the US Navy. In respect of planned military aircraft procurement, there appears to be little in the way of bi-partisan dissent.
But it is of course the Senate that really matters and where the battle is fought out.
To a large extent the Biden administration had in its requests followed the trend on defense spending pursued by Donald Trump although it has also to be said that the administrations defense budget proposed an active force reduction of 5,400 military personnel to 1,346,400.
One of the larger arguments within the overall US defense debate is handling of waste and mismanagement including the Pentagon’s 20% excess capacity and a figure put at $25 billion in respect of money wasted. For 2023 it seems that cost effectiveness will be a much larger issue of disagreement than 2022.
CHW (London – 1st December 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785