Analysis

New White House Unlikely To Drastically Alter Defense Budget

Law360 (November 8, 2020, 5:26 PM EST) -- Joe Biden's victory in the 46th presidential election signals a shift in how defense spending may be prioritized over the next four years, but the Democratic Party's past reluctance to pare back the defense budget for other priorities suggests that drastic reductions are unlikely.

Although Biden — whose Saturday win is being challenged in multiple lawsuits by President Donald Trump's campaign — has attacked Trump as having "abandoned all fiscal discipline when it comes to defense spending" and asserted that the U.S. can maintain a strong defense posture with less funding, any cuts he may make will hinge on discussions with congressional leaders.

Republicans have historically supported a large defense budget, and most Democrats showed earlier this year that they don't support deep cuts either when the party's progressive wing unsuccessfully pushed for a 10% cut to use the funds to tackle the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

While Biden has proposed ending U.S. operations in Afghanistan, he also took a hard line against several U.S. rivals and adversaries during the final presidential debate on Oct. 22, saying Russia, China and Iran were interfering with the election this year.

And like Trump, Biden has called for beefing up domestic supply chains in light of vulnerabilities that were made apparent by the COVID-19 pandemic, including areas critical to the defense industry such as semiconductors and communications technologies. His stance makes a large spending cut less likely, according to Eric Lofgren, a research fellow at George Mason University's Center for Government Contracting who has studied the DOD budgeting process.

"This goes against what some of the Democrats and his vice presidential candidate were talking about in terms of ending forever wars and drawing down defense," Lofgren said.

The size of the fiscal 2021 defense budget is already locked in under a bipartisan budget agreement, and the next president's 2022 budget request is due in February.

As a result, Biden is expected to pick from one of a few options prepared by the Office of Management and Budget that will broadly trade off defense spending against other priorities and campaign promises, like building infrastructure and addressing climate change, or more COVID-19 relief, according to Gordon Adams, a senior White House national security budget official during the Clinton administration and now a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

More details of the defense programs Biden may want to prioritize — and those he may want to cut — will only come with the 2023 budget request, according to Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonprofit policy research organization.

"It's not until you get to the second budget request of a new administration that you start to see real change, because that will be one that they developed from the beginning to the end," he said.

In the meantime, Congress will have had a chance to have more input in the budgeting process, while the military will also "start fighting back to recover what they lost in that first round," Adams said.

Several lawmakers will play a big role in influencing the defense budget, including the House speaker, Senate majority leader and the chairs of the Armed Services, Appropriations and Budget committees. Armed Services Committee leaders who support relatively higher budgets will have to make their case to lawmakers who advocate for steeper cuts.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in an Oct. 6 discussion at George Mason University that he believed defense spending under full Democratic control would likely be "flat for a while," staying within the range of $720 billion to $740 billion — the current rate.

Although the overall budget may stay relatively flat, positions taken by Democratic leaders over recent defense budget bills indicate that specific spending priorities could change.

A frequent target of Democratic criticism is the stockpile of America's nuclear weapons. Smith said in an Oct. 29 discussion at the Center for a New American Security that he wants "a nuclear arsenal that is sufficient to deter anyone from thinking that it makes sense to start a nuclear war." The current U.S. arsenal of thousands of warheads is intended not only to deter but to win a nuclear war, which is an "insane" idea, he said.

Land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles are the most likely to face cuts, as they're being modernized more slowly than air- or sea-deployed weapons, according to Lofgren.

The U.S. Army could also face disproportionate budget cuts because it relies more on personnel than the other branches. Reducing it is relatively straightforward and also fits in with long-standing strategic arguments that the U.S. doesn't need a large standing army, Adams said.

But it can be difficult to immediately free up money from such structural changes, and "making large amounts of people unemployed in the middle of 8% unemployment is not the best idea," said Matt Vallone, director of research and analysis at consulting firm Avascent's analytics unit, who focuses on defense and space analysis.

Both Biden and congressional Democrats have also made broad statements about getting rid of legacy platforms — older weapons systems that often have high sustainment costs — and paying more attention to new and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and unmanned systems.

That would bring defense spending more in line with what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has floated as the future of warfare, a "mosaic ... of disaggregated systems that are smaller and not these larger, monolithic programs," Lofgren said.

But delaying or cutting new programs is often politically easier than cutting legacy programs that have entrenched support from certain lawmakers. These legacy programs can be hard to kill even when the services no longer want them, as evidenced by the U.S. Air Force's unsuccessful attempts over the years to retire the A-10 close air support aircraft.

"I think that competition between those two things would be where you'd see some of the fighting around budget cuts," Vallone said. "Are you able to actually pivot to invest in new technologies?"

Ultimately, the size of the defense budget could hinge on something that is not directly related to defense priorities.

While spending bills can be passed in the Senate with a simple majority using the so-called reconciliation process, most legislation, including the National Defense Authorization Act that broadly sets out the annual defense budget, require a 60-vote supermajority — and therefore typically at least some support from the minority party — to move forward. The potential for all legislation passing through with a simple majority could only happen if the filibuster is ended — something that Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has said he might do.

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.

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