Other voices: Record defense spending? Yes but …

The White House is touting President Biden’s US military budget for fiscal year 2024 as a record, and Mr. Biden is betting that busy Americans won’t look past the headlines. The truth is that he is calling for real defense cuts, even as the US wakes up late to a world of new threats.

The Pentagon’s budget request may seem high at $842 billion. But the figure is only a 3.2% increase on last year, and with inflation at 6% it means a drop in purchasing power. Compare the 3.2 percent increase to double-digit increases for domestic accounts: 19 percent for the Environmental Protection Agency; 13.6% for both the Education and Energy Departments; 11.5% for Health and Human Services.

For all the talk of a bloated Pentagon, defense in 2022 accounted for only about 13 percent of the federal budget. That’s about 3 percent of GDP, down from 5 percent to 6 percent during the Cold War, even though America’s challenges today are arguably more numerous and acute.

China is building a world-class military to drive America out of the Pacific. Russia pledged to crush Ukraine and then move its army to the Polish border; Iran may soon have a nuclear bomb; North Korea fires missiles at Japan. Hypersonics and missiles threaten the US homeland.

The Pentagon does not release the finer points of the budget until Monday, but a sizable portion of any increase will be absorbed by a 5.2 percent increase in pay for troops and civilians, needed in part to offset Mr. Biden’s inflationary policies. The White House includes bromance about America’s “long-term commitment to the Indo-Pacific” and highlights $9.1 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

But Pacific deterrence depends on a US Navy large enough to deter bad behavior, and the goal of a 355-ship service remains a fantasy. The document promises “executable and responsible” investment in the fleet, which is a euphemism for cutting ships without adequate replacements.

The budget commits to “continuous nuclear modernisation”, but recapitalizing all three parts of the triad is a generational challenge that constrains budgets. The document calls for expanding “industrial base production capacity to ensure the military can meet strategic requirements for critical munitions,” and Congress last year authorized multiyear contracts that should help. But the US was still not procuring its best precision weapons in sufficient quantities to last more than a few weeks in a battle for Taiwan.

Mr. Biden’s biggest failure is promising that his budget will keep “America safe,” instead of talking to the public about the threats and what it will take to meet them. The reality is that U.S. military power is “slowly sinking,” as one Navy admiral put it last year, and Congress will have to start plugging the hole.

— The Wall Street Journal

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