The U.S. Military's New Defense Budget Makes No Sense

U.S. Military

The U.S. Military's New Defense Budget Makes No Sense

Last week the Biden Pentagon submitted its budget request for fiscal year 2025. If executed as written, the request would shrink the U.S. armed forces at a time when grave dangers—and thus the demands on the armed forces—are surging around maritime Eurasia.

Walter Lippmann, call your office. Last week the Biden Pentagon submitted its budget request for fiscal year 2025. If executed as written, the request would shrink the U.S. armed forces at a time when grave dangers—and thus the demands on the armed forces—are surging around maritime Eurasia. In short, U.S. national purposes and power are on opposite trajectories. Commitments are proliferating and intensifying while the means to handle them wilt. If they don’t reverse the trendlines, officialdom and lawmakers could soon be guilty of what Lippmann, arguably America’s foremost pundit of the twentieth century, termed “monstrous imprudence” in foreign policy and strategy. 

Such a verdict would be damning. But just. 

By monstrous imprudence Lippmann meant that the United States had taken on colossal geopolitical commitments following the Spanish-American War of 1898 yet radically underfunded them. U.S. naval and ground forces had wrested an island empire from Spain. The war ensconced the United States in the Caribbean Sea, in the Philippine Islands, and on Pacific island steppingstones such as Guam. The latter were invaluable for refueling and reprovisioning steamships voyaging to or from East Asia. 

From North America to the Philippines: that’s a lot of geographic space to guard. These were territorial holdings of inestimable worth, yet successive presidential administrations and Congresses funded too few ships of war and ground forces to protect them. According to Lippmann, every administration from 1898 to World War II—with the partial exception of Theodore Roosevelt’s—skimped on defense of the newfound empire. Neglect left the U.S. military ill prepared to cope with the rise of imperial Japan, which rampaged through Manchuria and China starting in 1931 before striking Pearl Harbor in 1941—and summarily stripping America of its post-1898 gains in the Pacific. 

Such are the wages of martial neglect. Concludes Lippmann, a monstrously imprudent national leadership neither succeeds overseas nor commands steady popular support at home. Only by bringing military means into alignment with national purposes can a society like the United States prosper in world affairs. 

Now as in the days of Walter Lippmann, wise leaders set foreign-policy goals and raise resources sufficient to make good on them. They don’t fix expenditures at some arbitrary level, then hope the resulting figure supplies enough armed might to achieve their goals. Wishful thinking is strategic malpractice. If a nation has too few resources to achieve goals entertained by the political leadership, it’s best off scaling back the leadership’s goals to something the nation can afford. Or, if the nation has enough resources but the government, people, and armed forces care too little about their foreign-policy aspirations to tap those resources, the nation is once again best off reducing or jettisoning commitments it cannot or will not afford. 

Like family households, nations should live within their means. 

America is straying toward monstrous imprudence. Last year Congress capped defense spending at $895 billion under the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023. That’s a lot. Whether it is enough is doubtful in the extreme. Nevertheless, to comply with the congressional edict, the Pentagon dutifully submitted a budget request asking for that sum. If approved by Congress in its current form, the proposed budget would boost total spending by 0.9 percent in absolute terms. But it would cut defense spending once adjusted for inflation. This on top of a real cut in the 2024 appropriations bill, which has yet to be approved nigh on halfway through the fiscal year. 

The spending cap would be felt across all warfare domains, from an 18 percent cut in purchases of F-35 stealth fighters to ordering just six warships while retiring nineteen. The latter makes for an especially dismaying differential equation. It would reduce the U.S. Navy fleet by thirteen hulls at a time when China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy is growing bigger and badder by the day. The PLA Navy fleet already stands at over 370 ships, to 292 battle-force ships for the U.S. Navy. And, according to Pentagon projections, the Chinese inventory will reach 435 vessels by 2030. But even these numbers, dismaying as they are, disguise the true scope of the challenge. Any likely Pacific contest of arms will take place within reach of shore-based PLA weaponry. In that sense the PLA Air Force and Rocket Force are sea services as well. Land-based air and missile firepower able to affect a nautical fight goes on China’s side of the balance-of-forces ledger. Cutting back American sea power under these circumstances courts disaster. 


Lippmann is not the only one among the pantheon to inveigh against strategic malpractice. Like him, the classics of strategy preach that ends should govern means in normal times. What a contender wants, and how much it wants it, determines how many resources it spends to get it. QED. Now, naval historian Julian S. Corbett, riffing on Carl von Clausewitz, does observe that there’s a mode of strategy in which means prevail over ends. Corbett calls this topsy-turvy approach “war by contingent.” It’s a special type of warfare that involves mounting secondary operations around a foe’s periphery to shape the outcome of a larger armed struggle. It’s a mischief-making strategy, not a war-winner in itself. Corbett makes the Duke of Wellington the face of war by contingent. In 1808, Wellington led a modest expeditionary army into Iberia to fight alongside local partisans and make trouble for Napoleon along France’s western frontier. So disruptive was Britain’s continental foray that the little emperor wryly called it his “Spanish ulcer.” 

Such an expedition’s endeavors are limited by means rather than ends. That’s because senior political and military leaders assign the commander a fixed panoply of military means—whatever the larger campaign can spare without undue risk—and bid him or her go forth to harry the enemy. That’s the only goal, not something more discrete. Sowing havoc for an antagonist in a peripheral theater siphons hostile forces from the principal theater, weakening the foe where it matters most—and bolstering the prospects for ultimate victory. 

But again, a war by contingent is not the main effort. It’s an adjunct to the main effort, and as a marginal enterprise it can play by different rules. Mapping out the main effort—in current U.S. strategy, the effort to gird against China—must abide by the normal rules whereby policy aims reign supreme and mold the strategies and forces deployed to achieve those aims. Then U.S. strategists can plot when, where, and how to give China a nasty ulcer of its own. Corbett, like Lippmann, would blanch at the thought of deliberately shortchanging means while expecting to accomplish expansive ends. 

That would turn the world upside down. But that’s where we are. Washington needs to get serious about matching ends with means—and turn the politico-military world right-side up again. 

About the Author: Dr. James Holmes

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.