On Jan. 19, the Pentagon released the latest version of the National Defense Strategy.
At my organization, Taxpayers for Common Sense, we have long argued that the strategy seemed totally disconnected from the annual Pentagon budget request. After all, if “non-state actors” (terrorists to the rest of us) are the biggest threat, how does buying the monstrously expensive F-35 or modernizing the entire nuclear triad counter that threat?
Spoiler alert: You can’t fight terror with nukes.
As importantly, as a country, we simply have to set priorities about spending, particularly in light of statements by military leaders from former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen to current Secretary of Defense James Mattis that our long-term debt is our greatest national security threat. I would argue that we could never afford to give the military a blank check, but we certainly cannot afford to so with a debt that already exceeds 100 percent of gross domestic product.
So it is with great interest that we read through the unclassified summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy – and while I am happy to see a strategy articulated, I must admit that this may be an example of “be careful what you wish for.” Why? Because it only takes until the last sentence of the second paragraph for the secretary of defense to show his hand: “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”
The secretary goes on to outline exactly who those states are: China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. The unclassified summary of the strategy also broadly outlines the specific threat coming from our competitors. “Challenges to the U.S. military advantage represent another shift in the global security environment. …Today, every domain is contested – air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace,” it says.
Hold on to your wallets. This is a strategy that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to implement. If you consider the long term costs of the nuclear triad, that number rises into the trillions. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., is quoted as supporting spending on the Pentagon for fiscal year 2019 of $700 billion, roughly matching what was authorized by the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2018. (But you can’t spend an authorization.)
It would actually be more accurate to say, “Hold on to your credit cards.” Because the only way Congress can spend $700 billion on the Pentagon next year is by adding to our already massive deficit. And I feel obliged to make passing reference to the Budget Control Act of 2011, which is still the law of the land. Under that law, the cap for the Pentagon for fiscal year 2019 is $562 billion. Yes, Congress has amended or waived the Pentagon’s cap every year since fiscal year 2013. But, it’s a Grand Canyon sized gap between $562 billion and $700 billion.
Of course one way to bridge that gap is to put a large chunk of Pentagon spending in the pot of “magic” money called Overseas Contingency Operations account. I say magic money because it doesn’t count against the Budget Control Act caps. However, it still adds to the deficit.
Rumor has it the Office of Management and Budget is preparing a Pentagon budget request of roughly $615-620 billion (about $60 billion over the cap). What’s not clear is if this is just the “base budget” request and if another roughly $85 billion will be requested in Overseas Contingency Operations – bringing us to the $700 billion level.
While this National Defense Strategy will be undeniably expensive to fulfill, I firmly believe that fiscal concerns over an exploding deficit must be addressed. Recent tax “reform” will result in a massive loss of federal receipts. Huge increases in Pentagon spending will result in more deficit spending. The math simply doesn’t add up. Of course, Congress should make smart investments in the military to keep us safe, but it would be fiscally reckless to continue to add to our already enormous Pentagon budget without looking for the many opportunities for savings at the same time.
I hope there are still a few true fiscal conservatives in the Congress who will pump the brakes on runaway deficit spending.