Roger Zakheim: Coronavirus spending shouldn't prompt defense cuts – we need a strong military

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With coronavirus response stimulus spending approaching $2.5 trillion and a projected budget deficit of $3.7 trillion this year, it is inevitable that Congress will soon dust off its scissors and begin the exercise of budget cutting. The first place lawmakers are likely to look is national defense. That would be a mistake.

Before engaging in another round of budget battles and debt-limit standoffs, Congress ought to look back a decade to the last time the country tried to get serious about our spending problem.

If fiscal hawks were the winners of the last budget battle (a debatable point) that gave us sequestration and budget caps, our national defense infrastructure was without question the biggest loser.


Here are a few lessons for those years the green eyeshades ought to keep in mind as they strike back at federal spending.

Defense cuts do not result in defense reform

Budget cuts have rarely, if ever, led to the necessary and important objective of reforming the Pentagon. The cuts are seldom applied in a strategic fashion, and so result in indiscriminate and incoherent applications that lead to a weakened force.

Under financial strain, Pentagon leaders spend all their efforts on how to say alive rather than figuring out how to get healthier.

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Unable to maintain its readiness and sustain the operational tempo levied by its political masters in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the military paid the price in the form of training and operational mishaps and, tragically, deaths.

According to one report, annual accidents in the Navy’s aviation fleet increased 82 percent between 2013 and 2017, with 133 service members killed in accidents involving Navy jets.

The effects of budget cuts and caps contributed to the Trump administration’s objective of “rebuilding the military.”

The rebuild isn’t just about dollars – it’s about reforming the enterprise for 21st century warfare. It remains unclear whether the military has indeed been rebuilt, but reducing military budgets in the aftermath of COVID-19 will certainly reverse the recovery our military has enjoyed over the past three years.

Strengthening the force and modernizing its platforms requires sustained investments over at least six years. Starving the pump after priming it inevitably leads to lost investments and a hollow force.

Be wary of solutions that promise strategic results for pennies on the dollar

Even more so now than during President Barack Obama’s administration, it is fashionable to promise that new technologies will transform the way the military fights at a fraction of the price. This may be true in the future, but it is not yet the case.

Trading an aircraft carrier today for a PowerPoint slide that promises a new technology tomorrow is a recipe for defeat. This is true when defense budgets are growing at a modest rate; it is doubly true when the military is stretched and hungry for resources.

If you are going to reduce military spending, then change your strategy

While it is common for policymakers to advocate spending less on defense, it rarely results in a president asking the military to do less. In fact, the opposite is usually true: the military will be asked to do more with less.

Whether it was defeating Al Qaeda and ISIS, deterring Iran and Russia, operations in Libya, or pivoting to Asia, the years of budget-cutting did not see a reduction in military operations. Instead, they led to an overtaxed force with degraded equipment unable to meet the demands of the commander in chief.


It is, of course, understandable that a president would prefer not to change his strategy based on fiscal considerations. After all, our enemies and adversaries don’t take a knee while the U.S. pauses investing in its military.

The lesson here is the enemy has a vote. During the years of budget caps and sequestration, our adversaries – including China and Russia – exploited the opening with remarkable speed. As U.S. military deterrence degraded, we found ourselves confronting near-peer competitors capable of beating us in a fight.

President Trump’s national security strategy, with its emphasis on great power competition – particularly with China – was clear-eyed about these developments. It employed a strategy aimed at arresting these trends.

Failing to adequately resource the military would abandon that strategy and undermine the most significant national security contribution of President Trump’s first term.

Which leads to a final lesson from our last attempt to reign in federal spending on the backs of the military:

Only the commander in chief can protect the military from death by a thousand budget cuts

The president has the ability to continue rebuilding our national defense infrastructure and keeping the American people safe by requesting military budgets that sustain his strategy and by making clear in word and deed (via the veto pen) that he will not tolerate congressional mischief.


Failure to take these actions will give tacit approval to Congress to take the military’s money and run. Unfortunately, early indicators suggest President Trump may allow just that.

If the commander in chief can’t find his voice and pen, history may end up repeating itself.


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