(Bloomberg) — The high price tag of taming the coronavirus pandemic and pressure from some Democrats to significantly reduce the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget probably won’t force arbitrary national security budget cuts, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s new chairman said.
“Arbitrary reductions would not be the right way to go,” Senator Jack Reed, the Rhode Island Democrat who leads the panel, said in an interview Monday. Congress will weigh President Joe Biden’s first budget request and review the military services’ proposals to see if they cut unnecessary, so-called “legacy” weapons programs and facilities, Reed said.
Reed’s position is significant because Biden’s election elevated a narrative within the Democratic Party that the president will be under enormous pressure from progressives to slash defense spending. National security makes up about half of the federal government’s discretionary budget.
Biden’s budget blueprint will be matched up against the Trump administration’s December fiscal planning framework, which outlined $759 billion for national security, with $722 billion of that for the Pentagon alone. That would be a 2.3% increase over this year’s request. The five-year framework detailed growth of 2.1% annually, about the projected rate of inflation.
The defense budget has largely been immune from significant reductions in large part because work is spread across many states. Major contractors for large weapons programs, including Lockheed Martin Corp., General Dynamics Corp., Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp., all rely on subcontractors around the country, creating a broad base of support.
In addition, both parties are loath to be seen as weak on national security. Competition with China and Russia also hampers any real prospects for cuts.
Congressional math is also preventing Democrats from taking the scalpel to the Pentagon’s budget, Reed said. Senate committees are evenly split among Democrats and Republicans, so every proposal would have to attract Republican votes. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who now leads the Budget Committee, has long called for cutting 10% of the defense budget.
“To move legislation out of the committee, you’re going to have to have Republican support as well as Democratic support, and I think you’ll find that there are some on both sides who would like to see arbitrary cuts,” Reed said. Still, “the majority feels that we need an adequate defense and we have to look toward a stable funding stream, not significant reductions,” Reed added.
Even though Democrats hold a narrow majority in the House, the calculation is similar. Democrats will need Republican support to pass defense authorization and spending legislation because of a bloc of Democrats and Republicans who regularly vote against defense legislation.
Defending Military Dollars
Representative Mike Rogers, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said his main priority this year is to prevent cuts to defense spending if an increase of 3% to 5% isn’t possible.
Representative Adam Smith, Reed’s counterpart, has also indicated that major cuts wouldn’t be realistic. While he predicted an intra-party fight, Smith said he expected a national security budget in the range of $720 billion to $740 billion.
For his part, Biden told Stars and Stripes in September that he didn’t foresee major reductions in the defense budget as the military refocuses its attention to potential threats from near-peer powers China and Russia.
Although Reed voiced optimism there won’t be a successful attempt to make major cuts, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has his work cut out for him, said Frederico Bartels, a defense budget analyst for the Heritage Foundation.
Austin must “build a strong coalition within the Biden administration to advocate” for the necessary resources “because the main challenge will be Congress,” he said in an email. “There, members of the President’s own party have been pushing for reductions of the defense budget simply because they believe the budget is too high.”
Providing another potential bulwark against defense cuts, Reed and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire also serve on the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee that approves the dollars to be spent. The panel will be led by moderate Democrat Jon Tester of Montana.
“I don’t think he would do just an arbitrary cut for the sake of a cut,” Reed said.
One of the lightning rods in the looming defense reduction debate is the new U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.
Opponents are hoping the Biden administration moves to kill what’s estimated to be at least a $110.6 billion acquisition program, including the warhead. Northrop Grumman received the contract in September.
Reed said bipartisan congressional support for modernizing the nuclear triad of ground, air and sea-based weapons proposed in 2010 by the Obama administration remains today and “it’s very strong.”
“It’s certainly an issue that can be debated, it’s just that over time it has proven to be an effective means of deterring nuclear conflict,” he said of the triad.
“We need a replacement” for the over 60-year-old current Minuteman III, Reed said. The U.S. ICBM leg’s purpose is to “lock down most” of the Russian and Chinese ground-based nuclear missile arsenal that must contend with hundreds of U.S. missiles spread across the West. “They can’t risk a ‘first strike’ against the U.S. “unless they take those out,” Reed said.
“This is all part of the deterrence theory that, I think, has proven” itself “over the years,” he said. Another factor in the debate is the impact ending the ground-based leg would have on U.S. allies, Reed said.
Eliminating the ground leg “could lead them to believe that they are no longer as safe under our nuclear umbrella” and that might lead allies to increase or proliferate their own nuclear weapons, a move Reed said “would be terrible.”
It’s also critical that the Navy’s new Columbia-class nuclear submarine program stays on-cost and on-schedule, Reed said. The ballistic missile submarine is partly built at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, by General Dynamics’ Electric Boat unit. Reed has been one of the most vocal supporters of the program since its inception.
The U.S. Navy’s plan to deliver the first vessel in the $128 billion program on time is at risk by a dependence on inexperienced contractors with spotty quality control track records, according to the Government Accountability Office. The initial vessel in the new class of nuclear-missile-carrying subs, the Navy’s highest-priority program, is due for delivery in 2027. The Navy wants the first submarine to launch on patrol in 2030.
“We sent a signal as clear as possible to the Navy and the contractors that this ship has to come in on budget and on time,” Reed said.
Reed dubbed as “aspirational” the Trump administration’s 500-ship fleet plan that in some ways was unrealistic. “We have to confront some basic issues — one is we have problems with ships now that need overhaul and can’t get in, so, it’s nice to have a 500-ship Navy, but if many of them aren’t suitable for deployment, that’s a ‘number’ not a Navy.”
Still, former President Donald Trump’s proposal’s focus on submarines and autonomous ships has merit, Reed said.
“There was also a strong endorsement about subsurface because the invulnerability or the less vulnerability, I should say, of a submarine,” Reed said. “As we operate in the Pacific, given the precision missiles the Chinese have, I think, submarine looks more and more important every day.”
Autonomous ships and submarines “could be a real game changer,” Reed said. “We have to be aware that it’s not going to be done in a moment. It’s not going to be an overnight change, but we have to put the resources in there.”