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‘Watershed’ $1 trillion defense budget on the horizon

Balancing today’s needs and tomorrow’s challenges drives spending

Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord said Monday a $1 trillion defense budget is "inevitable."
Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord said Monday a $1 trillion defense budget is "inevitable." (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — The $1 trillion American defense budget is in sight. 

The U.S. government will spend that much on defense soon — maybe within just a couple of years, if recent trends continue. 

The U.S. government is spending just 3 percent of America’s gross domestic product on defense, Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord told reporters Monday — about half the share of U.S. wealth that the military got during the Reagan presidency and a far cry from the roughly one-third of GDP expended on defense during World War II.

Still, McCord acknowledged, it’s a lot of money — and it’s about to go up again. It’s the product of more than two decades of largely unimpeded growth in Pentagon spending, including increases from year to year in seven of the last eight cycles, much of it driven by lawmakers adding appropriations for weapons that McCord called “lower priorities” — $43 billion worth just last year, he said. 

“Just do the math,” McCord said of the looming $1 trillion mark. “Maybe that’s going to be a psychological, big watershed moment for many of us or some of us. But it is inevitable.”

Surging spending

The Biden administration provided details Monday on its $886.3 billion budget proposal for national defense in fiscal 2024, which includes $842 billion for the Defense Department. Republicans have already blasted it for being only a 3.2 percent increase over the current level as inflation still roars at about double that rate, and the hawks are eyeing a big boost to President Joe Biden’s proposed level of spending.

But the administration’s fiscal 2024 proposal would, even without a congressional addition, raise the defense budget by fully $104.4 billion compared to that of fiscal 2022, which ended less than six months ago. 

Moreover, none of these figures include the tens of billions in defense dollars that have gone to support Ukraine. 

When Washington does increase the defense budget again in fiscal 2024 above the current level, it will be despite grumblings from the far left and far right — and it’s quite likely to go up by more than 3.2 percent. 

If it goes up again in fiscal 2024 by 10 percent, as it did from fiscal 2022 to fiscal 2023, the so-called topline will approach $950 billion. 

That will then become the baseline for the fiscal 2025 request. And so on. Hence the talk of a $1 trillion milestone. 

At some point, the Pentagon’s budget will stop swelling at this rate, but it is not clear when — not with war raging in Europe and a bigger conflict possible in the future in Asia, and not with bipartisan majorities still supporting the increases, even with a newfound stinginess toward the Pentagon in the House GOP conference.

Not a ‘paper tiger’

Still, while discussion of the topline gets massive attention in Washington, there are deeper questions that Congress is about to turn to.

For one, if America is not getting a bigger military for all this money — and officials made clear Monday it is not — is the country at least getting a more capable military? The fiscal 2024 plan has a stronger focus on building more munitions and missiles for possible use in Asia, deploying more attack-resistant satellite constellations and expanding use of artificial intelligence. 

Another perennial question on lawmakers’ minds: is there a way to make the Pentagon, at long last, more efficient?

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said the military is, in fact, getting more capable and is working hard to do so for less money.

“If you look at the Russian experience we’ve just seen over the last year: a lot of tanks, a lot of humans, not a lot of good battlefield outcomes,” she said. “We are not a paper tiger military. We are very combat-credible.”

Diving for dollars

The defense committees and Washington think tanks are looking beneath the hood of the topline for ways to make the engine run more efficiently.

Even organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, traditionally advocates of ever-higher defense budgets, are looking for savings, if not necessarily a smaller topline. 

In the House, which has a narrow GOP majority, there’s a recognition of the power of the Freedom Caucus. Some of that group’s members — to whom Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., owes his job — are defying GOP orthodoxy by calling for as much scrutiny of Pentagon spending as of nondefense programs. 

The conservative think tanks, in response, have begun to advocate changes to make the Pentagon more efficient. Their recommendations will hold considerable sway. 

Phony savings 

Meanwhile, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, has endorsed reducing the Pentagon civilian workforce through attrition, though federal workers’ representatives are pushing back hard at any arbitrary civilian staffing targets. 

Real savings will not come from phantom objectives such as those cited by McCarthy and others — most notably what they call woke diversity and counter-extremism efforts at the Pentagon, which in reality amount to virtually no money.

Instead, savings, if they arrive, will have been the fruit of hard choices.

Decisions that lawmakers have avoided include initiating another base closure round and taking aim at other duplicative functions across the services and defense agencies. 

McCord politely suggested, too, that Congress should stop resisting Pentagon efforts to retire systems that are aging or of questionable utility, such as A-10 attack planes and Littoral Combat Ships. 

Personnel costs, meanwhile, have surged. Pay for uniformed personnel and civilians alike is set to go up next year by 5.2 percent — the biggest raise for troops in two decades and the biggest for civilians in four decades, McCord said. Such across the board raises disproportionately benefit officers and senior civilians who already earn a lot, and some in Congress may look at ways to more tightly target pay increases. 

Personnel costs should not be singled out, however. Every single category of the Pentagon budget — from maintaining facilities to developing weapons — has gone into the looming $100 billion-plus increase since fiscal 2022. 

Inputs and outcomes

The fiscal 2024 budget request, expensive as it is, is not as much as America spent at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which was north of $900 billion in inflation-adjusted terms and still represents the post-World War II peak of defense spending, McCord said.

But Congress has not acted on the fiscal 2024 request yet. It is a safe bet that, not long after Congress has cleared defense spending bills this year and next, the post-9/11 wars will become the second-most-costly phase of American military spending after World War II.

But the total is not what matters, Hicks said.

“The topline becomes the big issue inside the Washington debate, often, but all we really care about is the outcome: Can we deliver what we need to at the right time and place for the warfighter and do it in a way that’s respectful of what the taxpayers have entrusted to us?” Hicks said.

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