What a Biden Presidency Means for Defense

By Jon Harper

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.

Topics: Budget

Comments (3)

Re: What a Biden Presidency Means for Defense

There is a problem with this analysis. First being if the republicans only have a 50/50 split with democrats then it will be a democrat controlled senate. To give the republican a majority both Georgia seats will have to go to the republicans. Then that would only give them a one seat majority. With the house still in the hands of the democrats I can see a situation where as it has happened in the past where the house would not pass a budget until the republicans agreed to higher spending than what they said they would vote for. This has also shut down the government before until the republicans passed the budget that the democrats wanted.

“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.”

If the domestic and defense spending is tied together then or both will have to go up or one to go up the other will have to go down. But with the shutdown of business and industry the tax collections will be lower so the choice will come down to bread and butter or guns. With the sentiment in the house more so than in the senate it will be bread and butter. In additions with the aggressive social spending that is in the democrat platform and a few more progressives in the house I expect that there will be a very hard push to start the social spending that that the democrats ran for office on.

Curly4 at 1:31 PM
Re: What a Biden Presidency Means for Defense

That's a big "if" isn't it? Whether Republican's will hold Senate control following the runoff in Jan? This article should include discussion about what happens to defense budget if that foregone conclusion doesn't come to pass. Should the people know what might happen if no checks are placed on Democrats arguably at war with the radical elements of their party?

General Salami at 4:15 PM
Re: What a Biden Presidency Means for Defense

Obama & Biden implemented draconian cuts in defense spending via a program called Sequestration. At the end of their 8 years, only 3 of the Army's 33 Brigade Combat Teams were combat ready. Much of the Air Force fleet was grounded and pilots were flying less than 20 hours a month. The Navy had to defer routine ship maintenance so much when ships finally made it into drydock it cost many times more than it would have and took much longer to complete refit and overhaul cycles. Biden will do the exact same thing every liberal/Democrat president has done-impose draconian cuts to the military, then expect miracles when we are threatened-just ask anyone who fought in Korea during the first year of the war when poorly led, poorly trained and poorly armed American soldiers were cut to pieces by the well trained, well armed and disciplined North Korean Army. In World War II and Korea, we had the protection of distance-no one possessed weapons capable of directly striking the US. We lost the distance protection due to ICBMs, Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles & Air Launched cruise missiles. Now we are adding hypersonic weapons to the mix-weapons are only getting deadlier and more accurate, while we still have our aging, Cold War era nuclear weapons.

Craig Finley at 9:34 AM
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