In a recent article, (What the pessimists get wrong about Trump in Asia) Natasha Kassam argued that Donald Trump’s election has not ended Barack Obama’s pivot to the Pacific or led to a significant break with traditional approaches to US foreign policy in Asia. Kassam rightly pointed to the 2017 National Defense Strategy (NDS) as a reflection of the “furious agreement” among the American national security establishment that China represents a strategic threat that must be countered through deep engagement in the region.
While the need for a strategic rebalancing has been under discussion for many years, the NDS still provides the clearest articulation of US objectives to date. Current negotiations over the Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) defence budget represent a key opportunity for progress. However, the effort required to adequately resource the strategy cannot be underestimated, and Trump’s deployment of troops to the US southern border and plan to take unobligated funds from the defence budget to build barriers introduces a whole new level of chaos to the process.
Congressional language included in last year’s defence bill emphasised the challenge ahead:
… much of the hardest work remains to translate the NDS into detailed policy guidance, to realign defence programs, readiness, and posture in accordance with the strategy … We must make difficult choices about roles and missions, force development, resource allocation, and investment priorities. This responsibility rests equally with the executive and legislative branches.
Congress established a commission to review the NDS and provide recommendations regarding implementation. This bipartisan group of national security experts reported in late 2018 that the while NDS represented “a constructive first step in responding to the crisis of national defence … the execution of the strategy will likely be hindered by critical resource shortfalls and analytical gaps”. The Commission proposed a 3–5% increase in the base defence budget (beyond inflation) over the next five years to meet the objectives laid out in the strategy.
The Trump administration’s FY20 budget proposal, which represents a starting point for negotiations, was delivered to Congress in early March. This proposal included a meaningful increase in research and development programs but in many respects did not differ significantly from the FY19 defence budget.
The planned withdrawal of operational troops from Syria and Afghanistan is unlikely to yield meaningful savings.
The capacity to allocate additional resources to the Indo-Pacific is limited by costs associated with maintaining the current force and supporting current operations. Both operational tempo and spending cuts associated with sequestration diminished the readiness of US forces during the Obama administration. In 2017 a bipartisan group of legislators established a multi-year plan to “get the force healthy again”. Continuing investment in the readiness of the force is considered critical.
Further, the planned withdrawal of operational troops from Syria and Afghanistan is unlikely to yield meaningful savings. A recent analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that nearly 70% of last year’s wartime budget account funded enduring or fixed costs: the infrastructure required to support 7,000 versus 14,000 operational troops in Afghanistan is roughly the same.
Budget experts point to modernisation funding as the key opportunity for the FY20 defence budget to better align with the new strategy. There are differences among the services regarding the applicability of existing modernisation plans to the new strategy – i.e., Army programs will require “a dramatic reworking” while Air Force programs will not. The Army’s FY20 budget proposal moves decisively in this direction: nearly 200 programs are targeted for termination or reduced funding over the next five years.
Because the cancellation of programs ultimately impacts jobs in someone’s congressional district, procurement decisions are heavily influenced by domestic politics. This year we can also expect a spirited debate over the Pentagon’s nuclear modernisation plans given that Adam Smith, the new Democratic Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has questioned the relevance of the nuclear triad.
These are complex but not insurmountable problems. The mix of competing interests and urgent priorities is nothing new to the bipartisan legislative process that has produced a defence bill on time every year for the past 58 years. However, Trump’s actions regarding the southern border wall threaten that process by shifting attention away from defence requirements to the politically toxic issue of immigration.
In recent testimony before the congressional defence committees, Patrick Shanahan, Acting Secretary of Defense, spoke at length about Chinese cyber capabilities, hypersonic missiles and plans for nuclear-capable long-range bombers. Yet more than half of the hearing was consumed by questions about the unobligated military construction projects that have been targeted to pay for the southern border wall.
Erik Sayers, a former staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee argued in a recent War on the Rocks article on addressing the Indo-Pacific budget shortfall that:
Understanding and responding to the Russia threat and the terrorism threat remains a part of America’s national security muscle memory … Significant work still needs to be done to translate the emerging understanding of America’s long-term position in the Indo-Pacific by senior leaders and congressional staff to actual shifts in budgetary policy.
Given the bipartisan consensus around the strategy, there is reason for optimism regarding the long-term prospects of the necessary work getting done. But in the short to mid-term, we can expect that resourcing the NDS is going to be quite a battle.