Like a creature from a Hollywood horror film franchise, the Pentagon’s biggest budget nightmare is set to rise from the dead in 2019, slashing as much as $50 billion from the military’s war chest.
Sequestration, an Obama-era, automatic budget-cutting mandate that was driven by congressional gridlock, was paused for three years that end in September but never eliminated.
That has the military and a blue-ribbon panel of defense analysts worrying that key programs could get chopped unless Congress can finally slay the budget-cutting beast.
The Commission on the National Defense Strategy for the United States warned in a report this month that sequestration could threaten America’s defense capabilities as an arms race with Russia and China heats up.
“If this shortfall is not corrected, the Department may find itself able to prosecute just one conflict successfully, without the ability to simultaneously deter other adversaries,” the panel warned.
American defense spending peaked in 2010, with more than $727 billion allocated by Congress. The budget shank significantly as GOP deficit hawks and the Obama administration cut more than $100 billion from defense programs by 2014.
Defense spending has gone up under President Donald Trump, with $716 billion in spending for 2019. But future budgets could face automatic cuts under sequestration.
The Defense Strategy panel says the prospect of those cuts could derail plans rolled out by Defense Secretary James Mattis this year that are designed to match or exceed defense advances by the planet’s two other major powers: Russia and China.
“It is beyond the scope of this Commission’s work to identify the exact dollar amount required to fully fund the military’s needs, but the available means are clearly insufficient to fulfill the strategy’s ends,” the panel said in its report.
But fixing the defense budget will take something Washington is likely to lack in 2019: congressional harmony.
Elections this month gave Democrats a majority in the House, while the GOP held the Senate. That’s a classic formula for gridlock that could hamstring budget bills.
Washington’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, the presumptive chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has already tangled with the Trump-led Pentagon over recent deployments to the border, nuclear policy and military secrecy.
The panel warned that lawmakers will have to enlarge the Pentagon’s checkbook if they want to pay for Trump’s military policies.
“We believe that three to five percent annual real growth is indicative of the investment required,” the panel said. “Failing that, it may be necessary to alter the expectations of U.S. defense strategy and our global strategic objectives.”
One U.S. ally began looking to the future this month despite a notoriously tight defense budget.
The United Kingdom launched its largest-ever military drills for drones.
Unmanned aircraft, trucks and tracked vehicles joined in the “Autonomous Warrior” exercise this month.
UK Defense Minister Gavin Williamson said the trial will help Britain discern tactics for future wars.
“Our troops now have the chance to test out a huge range of robotic kit in what will be the biggest exercise of its kind in our history,” he wrote on the ministry’s website. “We’re always working with the brightest minds in Britain and across the world to see how they can support our military of the future, but now the frontrunners have the chance to prove what they can really do on a battlefield. This equipment could revolutionize our Armed Forces, keeping them safe and giving them the edge in an increasingly unstable world.”
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx