What a Biden Presidency Means for Defense
Joe Biden for President photo
With Democratic President Joe Biden in the White House and Republicans maintaining sway over the Senate, observers shouldn’t expect a radical change in military spending or strategy, analysts say.
Biden is set to be inaugurated Jan. 20, and the GOP is slated to have at least 50 seats in the Senate in the next session, depending on the results of a Jan. 5 runoff election in Georgia.
Defense spending in fiscal year 2020 stood at $738 billion. Many prognosticators have forecasted declining military budgets in coming years in response to the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and ballooning federal deficits.
However, Robert Work, former deputy secretary of defense in the Obama administration, doesn’t anticipate a huge decrease in outlays.
“Fiscal year 2021 will be flat and unchanged,” he said during a recent panel hosted by the Center for a New American Security. “FY ’22 I still think will be flat. And when I say flat [that means] plus or minus 2 percent. … No major deviations. Beyond that, it’s hard to see. It could go one or two ways: in the near term, plus or minus percent; after ’22 it could go down a bit more but I don’t expect a major decline.”
Diem Salmon, the former budget director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, was relatively bullish on military funding.
“I do not buy into the idea that it’s going to go down,” she said. “They’re going to have to come to a bipartisan agreement on the budget topline, and I don’t see anybody moving away from tying domestic and defense spending together.”
In recent years, Democrats and Republicans have lifted caps on both defense and non-defense spending that were imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Although the caps will no longer apply in 2022 and beyond, Salmon sees the same dynamic continuing to play out as Democrats negotiate for higher non-defense appropriations and Republicans push for more military funding.
“There is not going to be a situation or a budget that Republicans will support where domestic spending is going up but defense spending is going down,” Salmon said. “As long as Republicans are in the slight majority in the Senate, or can maintain that filibuster in the Senate, you’re going to continue to see parity between both domestic and defense spending. And I expect the Biden administration is probably going to want to increase [non-defense programs], or at least keep domestic spending fairly steady.”
The Biden administration is expected to scrutinize nuclear modernization plans. Some observers have suggested the ground-based leg of the strategic triad — which also includes bombers and submarines — could be severely cut back or eliminated. But Eric Sayers, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, doesn’t envision that happening, calling Biden a “moderate Democrat” on nuclear policy matters
While there might be some “changes around the edges” of the Trump administration’s plans, including a “rollback” on low-yield nuclear weapons, the triad will be preserved and new systems will be built, he predicted.
However, conventional force buildups proposed by military leaders in the Trump administration — such as a 500-plus ship Navy and a 386-squadron Air Force — may fall by the wayside, according to Work.
“The Biden transition team has said that capability is more important than capacity. They are not stuck on numbers,” Work said. “There is not going to be … big increases in capacity except in niche areas” like cyber and underwater systems.
On a broader strategic level, many analysts expect continuity.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy called for focusing on great power competitors China and Russia, with counterterrorism and smaller regional adversaries taking a back seat.
“My sense is that the incoming administration recognizes that China is going to be a very formidable strategic competitor,” Work said. “So I don’t think there’s going to be a major shift away from the NDS.”
However, the Biden team may seek to broaden the national security aperture and place more emphasis on other threats such as biodefense and climate change, he noted.
“There’s going to be some things that are added into the bucket for the new administration to take a look at, but I don’t think there’s going to be a U-turn,” Work said.