Frederico Bartels: Defense budget is a future Homer Simpson problem

Homer Simpson was never meant to be a role model. Not as a father, and not as a leader. For example, even when he realizes he’s making a lot of bad decisions, he simply brushes it off and plows ahead, stating “That is a problem for future Homer. Man, I do not envy that guy!”

It’s funny to watch a cartoon character do that. It’s not so funny, however, when a real-life leader responds that way. Unfortunately, “problems for our future leaders” is exactly the situation the Biden administration has set up by proposing a Pentagon budget that does not even keep up with the rate of inflation.

Make no mistake — the Pentagon faces major challenges. It needs a larger Navy to counter China’s massive buildup; our Air Force is short of fighters; the Army needs to modernize; and all the services still have readiness issues.

Instead of addressing these problems, the proposed budget exacerbates them by reducing planned procurement and cutting current capabilities. In essence, the Biden budget punts on national security needs, leaving it up to some “future Homer” to deal with.

Despite rising threats, the budget request inexplicably proposes a reduction in the armed forces active-duty end strength of 4,600. Of that reduction, 2,200 would be from the Navy, the very service that has experienced substantial personnel shortfalls and increased crew fatigue, precisely some of the contributing factors that led to tragic accidents in 2017.

Still on the subject of the Navy, the budget seeks only eight new battle force ships — two fewer than were funded last year, and four shy of what the Trump administration had planned. Overall, it slashes the budget for shipbuilding by $2 billion. This will put the Navy still farther behind the congressional requirement to build a 355-ship battle fleet — the minimum deemed necessary to counter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and other oceans.

The headline touted by the Biden administration was that the budget contains a record-high amount for research and development. That could have been the headline for the budgets in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, or 2021. The Pentagon has seen record-high funds for research and development for the past six fiscal years, jumping from $69.5 billion in 2016 to the proposed $111.9 billion for 2022.

The increase in research and development resources comes in large measure at the expense of procurement. Doubling down on the notion of divesting current capabilities to invest in the future, the president’s budget proposes to retire close to 200 aircraft while procuring about 90 new ones. You do the math.

Of course, these trade-offs were forced upon the Pentagon because the administration refused to request the necessary funding for our national defense. Since the 2017 National Security Strategy highlighted the change of focus from counterterrorism to great power competition, consecutive secretaries of defense have stressed the importance of increasing the defense budget by 3% to 5% above inflation annually for several years.

Under President Biden, the Pentagon was allowed an overall increase of 1.6%, which does not cover the projected inflation of 2.2%, let alone the actual inflation that is unfolding. Without those needed resources, the military is forced into taking so-called “necessary risks.” As explained by a senior Air Force official: “Necessary risk is taken in legacy missions to enable the investment in modernization required to outpace our adversaries in the 2030 time frame.”

That’s fine if our adversaries agree to not challenge our national interests until 2030, when hopefully our R&D projects have had time to come to fruition. But the enemies of freedom are seldom agreeable. Indeed, they are always looking for windows of opportunity that they can exploit, and this budget opens the window a tad wider.

If Mr. Biden’s defense budget goes through as requested, future Homer — and America’s service members — will have their hands full.

• Frederico Bartels is the senior policy analyst for defense budgeting at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.

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