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Sunday Talk: Joni Ernst and James Carafano: America Cannot Afford to Have the Defense Budget at the Same Levels

"...Biden Administration Plans to Hold the Defense Budget Flat"

As Published By Joni Ernst In: The Hill | March 12, 2021

If press reports are to be believed, the Biden administration plans to hold the defense budget flat for the coming fiscal year, maintaining it at the 2021 level. That would be a mistake with serious consequences. A frozen defense budget will not satisfy the needs for the military to counter threats ranging from an emboldened China, a revanchist Russia, and perpetual bad actors such as North Korea and Iran.

Defense experts have since reinforced this need, testifying that this modest budget growth is necessary to perform three important tasks at once: prepare the force for the future, maintain the improved levels of readiness, and recapitalize and grow the force. Because of the diminished state of our military, despite efforts during the Trump administration to rebuild, and the unsettling actions of our potential adversaries, the United States does not have the luxury to pick and choose which of these tasks it wants to accomplish. It must work toward all three at once.

The Obama administration had other priorities than defense and neglected military readiness. The result: military forces severely declined in their ability to fight with no notice. Therefore, a large chunk of the defense budget increases over the last four years had to be dedicated to fixing miserable levels of readiness. Those efforts enjoyed considerable success, best exemplified by the Army reaching a very strong level of readiness as reported in the 2021 edition of the Heritage Foundation Index of Military Strength.

But fixing current readiness is only part of the problem. America’s military finds itself both too small and too antiquated to deal with the threats now looming just over the horizon. The Navy is the smallest it has been since World War II, the Air Force’s average aircraft age is 30 years-old, and the Army’s primary equipment dates from back to the Reagan era.

Thus, a “flat” budget held at the same level as last year will require the Pentagon to cut more than 2 percent, or about $15 billion, from somewhere else in its budget to find resources to pay for these increased costs. This comes at a time when the Pentagon is pressed to prepare for new, more challenging mission sets, to modernize our nuclear deterrent, and to refocus on China.

It’s important to note that adequately funding national defense does not mean the Pentagon should get a free pass on efforts to become more efficient and transparent. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Efforts to scrub every line of defense funding for savings that began during the Trump administration must continue, and the Pentagon needs to double down on its efforts to pass its financial audit. The Pentagon should be a shining example of good stewardship of taxpayers’ dollars.

 Fiscal stewardship becomes more important as the challenges to our national security become more sophisticated and technologically advanced, as one of us has observed while leading the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. Our adversaries have steadily chipped away at our advantages in technology that are relevant to the warfighter — be it through forced technology transfers, old-fashioned stealing, or even indigenous development.

Now is not the time to coast on our advantages, but rather to reinforce and emphasize them. President Reagan’s strategy to achieve peace through strength has shown over the years to be a strong deterrent to our adversaries. Congress and the president need to set up our warfighters for success by not short-changing funding for the Department of Defense. A flat budget won’t accomplish that.

Joni Ernst is a Republican senator from Iowa and a member of the Armed Services Committee. James Carafano is vice president of national security and foreign affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

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