Michele Flournoy, the onetime under secretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration, once called for yearly increases to the defense budget of 3% to 5%.

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But Flournoy, who could become the first-ever female secretary of defense under presumptive President-elect Joe Biden, will likely have to manage with much less, say experts.

Flournoy is well respected in defense circles and served on the independent commission that helped formulate the 2018 National Defense Strategy that guided recently sacked Trump Defense Secretary Mark Esper. She also served as the chief adviser to the secretary of defense on national security and defense policy from 2009 to 2012.

O’Hanlon named two others who have been discussed as possible secretaries but gave little credence to either's chance. The first was former combatant commander, Adm. William McRaven, but he believes Biden would not choose a retired military officer. The other is former Sen. Sam Nunn, who may not want the position as he is 82 years old.

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Heritage Foundation security analyst Jim Carafano agreed that defense policy will remain consistent under a Flournoy secretaryship.

“I don't think necessarily the policy will flip on a dime,” he said while noting that he does expect any Biden appointee will renew focus on the social issues at the DOD to include race relations and transgender service members.

O'Hanlon believes a Flournoy DOD would maintain consistency with most Trump administration defense policies.

“In terms of budget, force structure, modernization, overall priorities,” he said. Asked what would change, he said, “Not much.”

Other key defense areas, such as the size of the military, the thrust of the National Defense Strategy, and the emphasis on new technologies, will remain, O’Hanlon believes.

America’s approach to adversaries will also likely remain the same as under President Trump.

“Some of our key policies are sort of in pretty good shape on Russia, China, North Korea,” he said.

Carafano acknowledged Flournoy’s defense credentials but said preparation does not necessarily lead to success.

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“Obama had a very strong defense team, including Bob Work and Michele,” he said. “They failed to actually deliver good defense policy and good investment.”

He added: “If you're going to bring back Obama people to run the defense department, why am I going to get an outcome that's different than the last time?”

While a supporter of growing the defense budget, both experts estimated defense spending would weaken under a Flournoy Pentagon due to flat budget projections.

“The Trump administration itself were for flat budgets going forward,” O'Hanlon said. “The Biden administration, unless it really wants to reverse course, is going to have to cope with the reality of less money than people thought was needed for the overall National Defense Strategy.”

O’Hanlon said Flournoy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley, former Chairman Joe Dunford, and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis all called for regular defense budget increases to meet the nation’s defense needs.

“What they all thought was needed for the National Defense Strategy … was a 3% to 5% annual real increase in the defense budget going forward into the indefinite future,” he said.

Carafano agreed that the DOD will likely lose buying power.

“It's going to be a strain to sustain defense investment,” he said, noting only real growth over the next five years would be adequate to meet defense needs.

"The president is going to have to spend the political capital to push for that," he said.

Meanwhile, some Democrats have called for slashing the Pentagon budget in light of historic national deficits and a still-reeling economy.

O’Hanlon points out that the United States is still highly active around the globe, the defense budget is high in historic terms, and many people are still calling for troops to come home.

Carafano agreed that maintaining current levels of defense spending is critical to America’s national security.

“It's really super important because we're in an era of great power competition,” he said. “Maintaining sufficient, credible strategic and conventional deterrence is the most single most important thing. You cannot do that without adequate defense investment.”

If adequate investment is not made on the front end, O’Hanlon said U.S. national security could be much more costly.

“Whatever the cost of the defense budget and these times, the real cost would come from a war with a nuclear-armed adversary,” he said.

Politically, slashing the defense budget could also damage a Biden administration, he said.

“You'd be inviting the Republicans to run against you in 2022 and 2024 in the way that they often have since Vietnam, which is the Democrats, supposedly being the party that's weak on defense,” he said.

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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