Asia Defense

The Defense Budget Debate Rages On

What is behind the White House’s passivity on cuts in the defense budget?

The Defense Budget Debate Rages On
Credit: DoD

According to the Defense News, the fiscal year 2016 defense budget request will in all likelihood, “die a long complicated death as it winds its way through the congressional committees.” The proposal consists of $534 billion in the base budget and $51 billion in overseas contingency operations (OCO). The request is most likely to trigger a fierce debate in Congress over spending priorities.

Defense News quotes analyst Todd Harrison of the Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessment (CSBA): “I don’t think it’s likely DoD gets anything close to what they’re planning right now.” This is mostly due to the 2011 Budget Control Act  and the threat of sequestration (for more details on the defense budget request please check out my previous piece here). The White House’s strategy so far has been simply to ignore the threat of sequestration and, by doing so, force Congress to break through its self-imposed spending caps, which automatically trigger sequestration. The Hill states that, “Obama’s budget proposal will undoubtedly launch Congress into a host of political debates on matters ranging from health care to immigration to energy.”

Meanwhile many soldiers voice their deep concern over automatic budget cuts.  For example, the vice-chief of staff of the U.S. Army, Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, emphasizes in an interview he gave Breaking Defense that sequestration “could push our volunteer force to the breaking point.” Gen. Allyn elaborates:

“[T]he reality is there is no peace dividend. The world has changed and it requires the United States Army to remain globally engaged while at the same time operating with a smaller budget and force structure in a world that is as dangerous as I have seen. (…) If we go another round of sequestration, the impact on size, readiness and modernization will be felt for a decade — and potentially put the lives of soldiers at risk.”

However, Kathleen Hicks, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), points out that there is a fundamental discrepancy between today’s budget request and the Pentagon’s overall defense strategy. She observes that the Pentagon “is still using the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance as its basic strategy framework. It updated that in the 2014 [Quadrennial Defense Review], but it’s essentially the same strategy … and that strategy was built $100 billion ago.” Hicks adds, “Sequestration’s effects are not yet fully felt, but the strategy most certainly can’t be executed at those budget numbers. So there is a mismatch underway. And the White House’s approach to that appears to be putting the budget above sequestration.”

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The Washington Post notes that the debate over the fiscal year 2016 defense budget request will foreshadow the 2016 presidential election debate on national security, which could turn out to be the Achilles’ heel of the Obama Administration and the Democrats. However, Douglas J. Feith, an analyst with the Hudson Institute and former undersecretary of defense for policy, argues that there is a deeper philosophy behind the alleged passivity of the Obama administration when it comes to defense spending:

“Sequestration of defense dollars constrains the United States in ways that progressive academics — of which President Obama was one — want the country to be constrained. When President Obama’s former top defense officials criticized him for allowing the defense budget to be slashed, their main complaint was that he didn’t fight hard enough to prevent it. The more profound problem, however, is that he seems to accept the reduction of U.S. military capability as desirable. It’s telling that, in his Jan. 20 State of the Union speech, President Obama didn’t say a word against the defense cuts. Defense sequestration is not an example of lack of presidential leadership; it’s a story of leadership in a radical direction.”