China’s Xi Jinping traveled to Moscow last week to commune with Vladimir Putin, cementing the new axis against the U.S. Compare that scene to President Biden’s proposed fiscal 2024 defense budget, which isn’t serious about matching American military power to growing threats.
To the extent the press is covering Mr. Biden’s $842 billion Pentagon budget, it is to note the number is large. Yet defense spending at 3% of the economy is low by historical standards. The Pentagon says the proposal is a 0.8% real increase over fiscal 2023, but that is based on an inflation fantasy. This is a defense cut, and not from an epiphany of fiscal restraint. Mr. Biden is choosing to put welfare entitlements over national security. The risks of his choice are worth examining:
• A Navy in shoal waters. The U.S. Navy is the beat cop for deterring bad behavior in the Pacific, but the U.S. fleet would shrink to 291 ships by 2028 from 297 now. The Biden Pentagon wants to retire ships prematurely, such as the cruiser USS Vicksburg, which taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade for longer service.
The Navy is also telling the U.S. Marines to find another ride to work, declining to buy any San Antonio-class amphibious warships. This will wreak havoc on the production line and make it harder to grow the Navy to 355 ships, as Congress says it wants.
The Navy failed to submit a shipbuilding plan, and an institution that can’t articulate its strategy or reason for existing won’t command public support to grow. The Navy is already struggling to buy and maintain enough of the best platforms for deterring China, such as the Virginia-class attack submarine.
• An under-powered Air Force. The Air Force deserves points for buying 72 fighters, which is the minimum needed to keep inventory stable. Meanwhile, the service asks to retire 310 aircraft, and some of this is inevitable. The F-15C/Ds leaving Okinawa with no permanent replacement are structurally exhausted; the A-10 is 40 years old and too rudimentary to operate against adversaries like China.
The Air Force is making a worthy effort to deploy unmanned aircraft that work in teams with manned jets like the F-35, though these are years away from joining the fleet at scale. The service isn’t asking to increase its notoriously low flying hours, which would allow pilots to be ready for a fight over Taiwan. Increased investment in the B-21 bomber is good news, but the aircraft’s first flight is already slipping by a few months.
• A shrinking U.S. Army. The land force takes a deep cut in purchasing power with a budget that treads water at $185.5 billion. The active-duty Army is contracting to 452,000 from 485,000 as recently as fiscal 2022, despite missions and deployments that are steady or increasing.
The Army excuse is the tight labor market, but spending to recruit is a choice, and the war in Ukraine is a reminder that human talent matters as much as equipment. The shrinking Army is also a note to conservatives who want to carve up the ground force to build up the Navy and Air Force: Too late. It’s been done.
One bright spot is an effort to buy bombs in bulk. Defense officials tout $30.6 billion for munitions, up 12% over last year, and some will be procured through more efficient multiyear contracts. The Pentagon would buy 118 long-range antiship missiles, more than double the 48 in years past. But inventories are still well below the roughly 1,000 fired to defend Taiwan in some war games.
That the U.S. now must protect against running out of ammunition is a testament to how much American defenses have atrophied since the Cold War. Some compare Mr. Biden to Jimmy Carter as he presides over growing threats and hot inflation.
But that’s unfair — to Mr. Carter, who shook off his illusions about the Soviet Union late in his term and began the defense buildup that Ronald Reagan accelerated. Congress will no doubt try to improve the Biden blueprint, which is a relief, but Americans should know this President isn’t doing nearly enough to protect them from the world’s multiplying dangers.
— The Wall Street Journal