America’s Declining Military – WSJ

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has warned most Americans that the world is becoming a much more dangerous place. So consider it a bewildering failure that the military budget President Biden unveiled Monday is not timed. It treads water amid inflation, inviting autocrats to exploit a widening window of American weakness.

The Pentagon is targeting $773 billion for fiscal 2023, and spending on national defense totals $813 billion when other accounts are included. That sounds big, and Mr. Biden presents it as a big increase over his request last year. But even defense officials say that after inflation, the Pentagon would only see a 1.5% real increase over last year’s funding. Defense spending will still account for about 3.1% of the economy, close to post-Cold War lows and falling further over the next decade. (See table below.)

The government calls China a “pace challenge” and Russia an “imminent threat” and touts $130 billion for research and development, including crucial efforts for artificial intelligence and 5G applications. Also welcome is $24.7 billion for missile defenses, including a much-needed $892 million to protect Guam from Chinese missiles and $27.6 billion for space capabilities. The Pacific Deterrence Initiative would receive $6.1 billion.

But the overall picture of the budget is that the Biden team is betting on weapons that don’t yet exist for a war they hope will arrive under someone else’s watch. They want to save money now to spend on something they say will be a more modern force in a decade.

To that end, the US Navy, with 298 ships, would buy just nine ships over the next year while 24 will be retired. The fleet would shrink to 280 ships in 2027, although the Navy says it needs a fleet of 500 to defeat China in a conflict. This trend will not impress Xi Jinping when he looks at Taiwan.

As for the army, Putin’s revanchism will require further action by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Alliance will need more troops and equipment in the Baltics, and much of that will need to come from the land branch. But the army is targeting $177.5 billion, little more than $174.7 billion last year and a cut after inflation.

Final strength would drop to 473,000 from the 485,000 approved last year. The army shrugs at not being able to fill all the vacancies in a hot job market. This may ease some general’s recruiting headaches, but it won’t lessen the threats the army may have to face in multiple theaters.

The Air Force “is now the smallest, oldest, and most unready it has ever been in its 75-year history,” as the Air Force Association put it this week, but the Pentagon plans to scale back its purchase of F-35 fighter jets to cut this year.

The Air Force wants 33 F-35s, up from 48 in previous years, which was still too few to upgrade the fleet in a timely manner. In a future conflict, the US will need these advanced aircraft to face sophisticated air defenses. Reducing purchases will put pressure on the supply chain and increase the cost per aircraft.

These hard-power priorities have been pressured to boast a massive $3.1 billion for climate change. This is consistent with a White House wanting to create a civilian climate corps with more staff than the Marine Corps. That $3.1 billion could be spent on guns. Decommissioning ships will save the Navy $3.6 billion over five years, and the country needs that offensive power more than electric transporters.

A few more questionable decisions: The government appears to have halted a program to develop a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, exactly the kind of weapon designed to deter Putin from using tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. The Air Force also wants to withdraw much of its aging airborne warning and control fleet (AWACs) without replacement, but this capability is essential to air dominance in any conflict.


A decade-long decline in American military power is an underestimated reason why the world’s authoritarians are on the rise. We never thought we’d be writing this given his penchant for military pork, but there’s a lot Congress can do to improve on the Pentagon request, which should be a foundation. Republicans propose that the military budget must grow by 5% in real terms. Congress should aim to return the US to its daunting strength of the Cold War years, when defense spending was 5% or more of the economy.

Unless lawmakers step in, the US may not be ready for the next war until a decade after we lose it.

(10/21/21) China’s hypersonic missile test shows that the next great war will use cyberattacks and unmanned vehicles that strike from afar. So far, the Biden administration has ignored the warning signals. Images: EPA/Shutterstock/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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