Army a Potential Bill Payer for COVID-19 Costs

By Jon Harper

Army photo

Ground forces are a prime candidate for cuts if military budgets decline in coming years, according to analysts.

Defense spending for fiscal year 2021 is expected to be $740.5 billion. The economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis, which includes soaring budget deficits, has some observers expecting the Pentagon to face greater fiscal constraints moving forward.

“We’ve got major bills due from the pandemic. We still don’t understand the full scope and scale of those in terms of the impact on the economy, the impact on the federal budget for years, if not decades to come,” said Gil Barndollar, a senior fellow at the nonprofit group Defense Priorities. “It’s hard to see defense [spending] even staying flat. … You’re going to have to cut something.

“Given our geography, given all the other competing priorities both in and outside of defense, the Army is the obvious place to cut,” he added.

Many officials see China as the greatest long-term threat to U.S. primacy, and the 2018 National Defense Strategy identifies the Asian nation as a great power competitor.

If there are budget constraints, and long-term competition with Beijing remains the top priority, “then you would prioritize efforts to deter China by reinforcing the balance of power in Asia while ensuring an economy of force in other regions,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “Since East Asia is a maritime theater, the Pentagon would presumably shift in emphasis to air and sea-denial capabilities.”

An ongoing AEI study anticipates the United States would likely stock up on advanced missiles, offensive cyber capabilities and launch platforms. The study envisions accepting risk in the near term by cutting ground forces’ size and readiness.

“The Army and the Marine Corps should shift substantial resources away from heavy units toward long-range land-based missile forces for cross-domain operations,” Eaglen said.

The size of the military’s active duty force could fall “steeply, quickly,” she added. “The burdens of personnel reductions will fall disproportionately on the Marine Corps and Army.”

However, Barndollar noted that major cuts to ground forces aren’t a sure thing. The top leaders at the Pentagon today, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, have served in the Army, he noted.

“It feels like there’s a little bit of a thumb on the scale there both now and potentially going forward,” Barndollar said. But “a Navy focus makes the most sense” when it comes to modernization spending. 

Topics: Army News

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