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OPINION

Casualties of the budget battle: Dysfunction in Washington is weakening America’s military might at precisely the wrong moment

Over a year into its term, the 118th United States Congress has been one of the least productive in American history. Only a handful of bills have been passed so far, with dysfunction and partisan infighting between Republicans and Democrats continuing to throw the legislative process into chaos. As frustrating as this is for American voters, people from around the world are watching events in Washington, D.C. with alarm. A certain level of political stability is expected of the world’s sole superpower, and its lapse in leadership could prove catastrophic for the security of the Middle East, East Asia, Europe as a whole. The survival of Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan depends in large part on continuing U.S. support, and a failure to provide it sends a worrying signal both to Washington’s democratic friends and to its authoritarian adversaries.

The temporary may become permanent

Things were already plenty bad for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) on October 1 of last year. Although the U.S. Congress had passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) days earlier, averting a disastrous government shutdown, CRs are still far from ideal for the DoD. They only permit spending below the levels set for the previous Fiscal Year (FY), which had ended on September 30. They can also delay scheduled increases in weapons production capacity and can even prevent new acquisition programs from beginning. In September, Dr. William LaPlante, the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment joked that it would be nice if the Chinese government handicapped themselves in such a manner.

The FY 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has allowed for up to $886 billion in defense spending (which President Biden signed in December), but Congress still needs to appropriate those funds, a task that should have been completed in September. $886 billion would be a welcome increase over the $858 billion appropriated for FY 2023, but Congress might elect to actually cut the defense budget down to the $842 billion that was requested by President Biden, or just not pass a budget at all and simply extend the ongoing CR for the remainder of the Fiscal Year.

Congress might elect to actually cut the defense budget down to the $842 billion — or just not pass a budget at all

Anything less than the amount authorized by the NDAA would be a win for China, Russia, and the rest of America’s enemies.

Things have already turned for the worse

Things can always get worse though, and on October 7th, they did. In response to rising regional tensions following Hamas’s brutal terrorist attack on Israel, President Biden surged additional US military assets into the region, including two aircraft carriers with their Strike Groups, additional US Air Force aircraft, and several US Army Air Defense Artillery units. It was a prudent decision taken to deter both further military escalation by terrorist groups and possible actions by rogue states such as Syria and Iran; if nothing else, the move ought to have enhanced the security of U.S. military personnel & installations in the region.

But the success of this effort is debatable. While Israel’s main threat, Hezbollah, has elected not to mobilize their full resources, U.S. troops in Iraq & Syria have been subjected to routine attack by Iranian proxy groups, a total of 165 as of January 29. Al-Asad Airbase in Iraq has been targeted with ballistic missiles on multiple occasions, most recently on January 20. Although most missiles are intercepted by U.S. Army Patriot systems, some have managed to get through, causing US personnel to sustain traumatic brain injuries.

Prior to January 28, the most significant spillover from the Israel-Hamas War had not manifested itself in Iraq or Syria though, but in Yemen. Since October 19, Houthi fighters based in western Yemen and backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) backed Houthis have been launching indiscriminate attacks on commercial ships transiting the Red Sea. In an attempt to protect international commerce, a multinational naval task force led by the United States has been created to patrol the waterways around Yemen. Operation Prosperity Guardian has had some success in intercepting Houthi missile and drone attacks on defenseless cargo ships, but it has not managed to deter them anywhere near completely. Nor can it ensure total safety for any vessel that attempts the perilous journey. There are simply too few warships to provide dedicated escorts for all the merchant ships that are passing by, even at highly reduced numbers from usual traffic volumes.

American warships possess an impressive array of weapons that can intercept the Houthis’ missiles and drones. Non-kinetic means, such as electronic warfare, have the benefit of not requiring a resupply of ammunition. But kinetic systems — those that fire ordnance at a target — are still a Surface Warfare Officer’s bread and butter. Those kinetic means range from gun systems that fire more affordable small and medium caliber ammunition, to more expensive interceptor missiles which can destroy enemy aircraft or incoming anti-ship missiles at long range. Still, these operations come at an appreciable cost to the U.S. Navy and its coalition partners.

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney (DDG 64) in the Red Sea on October 19, 2023.
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney (DDG 64) in the Red Sea on October 19, 2023.
Source: Aaron Lau / AFP

Why does the Pentagon need the money?

Reducing reliance on missiles has been a priority for the U.S. Navy due both to cost-effectiveness concerns, and also because of the logistical challenge inherent in replenishing missile inventories while deployed at sea. Currently, the Vertical Launch System on many U.S. and allied warships cannot be reloaded while in transit. Solving this problem would be worth $11-37 billion of additional surface combatants per a 2019 CSBA report, and the Navy plans to request additional funding to develop this capability.

Simultaneously, work continues on the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program Block 3, which will further enhance the ability of a warship to defeat incoming threats without expending anything other than its own electricity. The same can be said of directed energy weapons, which are being actively developed by the Navy for future deployment on warships. In the meantime, the reliance on traditional kinetic means to defend against incoming threats adds to the DoD’s budget woes. The failure of Congress to pass the budget on time is a triple threat, as it restricts funds to pay for operations, curtails procurement budgets to buy replacement ammunition, and delays development work on those badly needed new systems.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, not only are defensive missiles being expended in appreciable quantity, but now the United States is on the offensive against the Houthis. After the rebel group failed to heed a January 3 ultimatum issued by America and 12 of its allies, President Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak directed their militaries to engage in strikes against Houthi forces. The opening salvo on January 12 saw 80 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) expended at targets in Yemen. While such a strike is typical per U.S. doctrine, subsequent barrages have seen more TLAMs fired on at least 3 occasions.

This is suboptimal weaponeering, to say the least. The Houthis have no significant anti-air capabilities, and what little they did were priority targets that were largely taken out during the first attack. This gives American aircraft a highly permissive operating environment from which to conduct air strikes (in stark contrast to conditions in Ukraine for both sides fighting there). Accordingly, there is no need to use expensive and scarce long range standoff weapons like TLAMs when fighter jets armed with Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) and Small Diameter Bombs (SDB) can do the trick.

There's no need to use expensive and scarce long range standoff weapons like TLAMs when fighter jets armed with Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) and Small Diameter Bombs (SDB) can do the trick

A new JDAM kit costs $35,000-$45,000; new Mark 80 Series dumb bombs that they attach to cost a mere $5000; and a new SDB can be had for as little as $31,000, at least when bought in bulk. A completely new Block V TLAM, on the other hand, costs nearly $2.1 million total for the missile and the launch cannister.

President Biden’s FY 2024 Navy Budget does not even procure any new Block Vs, however, instead devoting funds to the recertification and upgrade of older Block IVs to Block V standard. This makes the expenditure of 100 or so Tomahawks on Yemeni targets even more problematic. Development of a TLAM replacement, the Next Generation Land Attack Missile, is being planned, but its arrival is still years away. Under the circumstances, it is critical that the United States not make the same mistake the United Kingdom and France have, namely: spending too much money on developing replacement weapons rather than replacing the combat expenditures of missile types that are already in production. As a result of decisions taken by French and U.K. military planners years ago, Ukraine will eventually run out of the Storm Shadow & SCALP-EG missiles it relies on at the current moment.

It's critical that the U.S. not make the same mistake the UK and France have — spending too much money on developing replacement weapons rather than replacing the combat expenditures of missile types that are already in production

The U.S. Navy needs to be growing its inventory, not shrinking it, as a fight with China would require a huge quantity of standoff weapons. U.S. Central Command’s contingency plans concerning direct conflict with Iran would heavily draw on these munitions as well. For the Fifth Fleet to expend so many of them against the Houthis is far from ideal. All of this should be reason enough for Congress to get the defense budget passed, but sadly, it often takes a tragedy to prompt action.

Last call for the U.S. defense budget

Tragedy has unfortunately struck. On January 28, a one-way attack drone flew into a US Army barracks located at the Tower 22 outpost in Jordan and exploded. Three Army Reservists were killed and dozens more were injured. As of this writing, President Biden has vowed retaliation against the Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxies; however, no military action has yet taken place. The possibility of things escalating into a regional war are very real and should prompt immediate action by both Congress and the President.

A satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows a military base known as Tower 22 in northeastern Jordan on January 29, 2024.
A satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows a military base known as Tower 22 in northeastern Jordan on January 29, 2024.
Source: Planet Labs PBC via AP

In the wake of October 7, President Biden resubmitted an amended national security supplemental budget request to Congress. Though framed as foreign aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, this proposed bill is just as necessary for the U.S. Department of Defense. It contains badly needed funds to expand munitions production capacity, buy replacements for defense articles sent to allies, and procure additional munitions for the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The draft legislation has significant shortcomings though, which the President & Congress need to rectify. It does not include any funding to pay for the additional military operations underway in the Middle East, which have already cost $1.6 billion. Even a campaign of limited intensity and duration against the IRGC and its proxies would add significant operation costs, to say nothing of the munition expenditures required — and that’s in the more optimistic case of a conflict that does not lead to a larger war with the Islamic Republic itself.

Without both a defense budget and a much larger supplemental appropriation, the Department of Defense would emerge from any extended conflict with a massive bill and very limited funds to cover it, resulting in significant cuts to other programs being funded by the Continuing Resolution. Such an outcome would severely degrade the readiness of the U.S. military and likely end any prospect for further assistance to Ukraine or Israel.

The lack of a budget will severely degrade the readiness of the U.S. military and likely end any prospect for further assistance to Ukraine or Israel

Both Beijing and Moscow stand to gain significantly if Washington cannot get its budget in order. While the U.S. military remains the world’s most powerful, events have demonstrated that it is severely taxed by competing demands for resources, which is leaving frontline servicemembers less well equipped than they ought to be.

Still, the picture is not all doom and gloom. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted a re-awakening of American industry, with significant increases in production getting underway to re-equip both the U.S. Armed Forces and its allies around the world. FY 2023 saw record U.S. arms sales approved, worth an estimated total of $238.4 billion. These sales are dividends powered by Congressional investment in the American defense industrial base. Producing more means having enough both for yourself and for your friends. Producing too little means American troops go into battle poorly equipped, while America’s enemies profit from market share ceded to them, as many potential customers will buy Russian or Chinese armaments if buying American isn’t an option. The former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Dr. Michael Oren, wrote a book called Ally about his experience in Washington. It contains a very illustrative passage:

“[in response to Al-Sisi’s coup] the United States suspended the $1.55 billion in military assistance given to Egypt each year since it signed the peace accord with Israel. For the first time since Kissinger extracted Egypt from Russia’s orbit in the early 70s, Cairo’s leaders went arms shopping in Moscow.”

This is the choice before American leaders. While voters may be fatigued from foreign conflicts, withdrawal from the world will only invite bigger problems. The solution is not to retreat but to make wiser decisions in the way foreign adversaries are challenged. That starts with making sure the service members going into battle have all the resources they need, and that American allies already at war with malign actors have the tools that will allow them to succeed without the direct assistance of active-duty U.S. military personnel. But if Congress cannot even manage to pass a budget, then the Department of Defense will spend the next year rearranging the deck chairs on its sinking ship.

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