The Coming Battles over the Defense Budget

Watch for Parochial Political Interests and Partisan Preferences

Peter Juul previews the potential conflicts likely to arise in the upcoming defense budget debate. It’s sure to be messy.

A static display of an F-22 Raptor is seen at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, VA. Last year’s battle over building additional F-22 Raptor fighter jets illustrated the parochial political interests of individual members of Congress when it comes to defense programs. (AP/Gary C. Knapp)
A static display of an F-22 Raptor is seen at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, VA. Last year’s battle over building additional F-22 Raptor fighter jets illustrated the parochial political interests of individual members of Congress when it comes to defense programs. (AP/Gary C. Knapp)

The battle lines for the most contentious defense budget process in decades are already being drawn. The first shots have been fired, with various deficit commissions issuing proposals for significant cuts in defense spending in the coming days. These groups include the official, White House-approved National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. On the other side, the presumptive House Armed Services Committee Chair Howard McKeon (R-CA) already declared defense spending cuts to be a “redline.”

The upcoming defense budget process will be more contested than any in 20 years. The post-Cold War defense budget debate wasn’t over whether or not to cut the defense budget. It was assumed that it would be cut, and the main debate was over how much should or could be cut. Today the defense budget has become a prime political battleground in a way it was not after the collapse of the Soviet Union with two continuing wars, overbudget acquisition programs, aging equipment, and increased political competition over national security issues overlaid on timeless parochial political interests.

The main front, as in times past, will be between progressives led by the Obama administration calling for manageable defense budgets and conservatives agitating for continued increases. Washington’s deficit hysteria and the apparent openmindedness of some conservatives to reduced or capped defense spending adds a potentially interesting wrinkle to the debate and creates a potential cross-ideological alliance in Congress—but the proof will be in the pudding. One thing, however, is certain: The politics of defense spending are back with a vengeance after being absent or submerged for the last 20 years.

Defense spending politics has many layers. The most visible is the parochial political interests of individual members of Congress. Senators and representatives will fight to defend defense programs that create jobs in their states or districts. Last year’s battle over building additional F-22 Raptor fighter jets brought this dynamic into relief. Democratic senators from California, Connecticut, and Washington joined Republicans from Georgia and Texas in voting to keep production of the advanced interceptor going. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) was the only senator from a state producing F-22 to vote against the plane.

Yet the F-22 may not be quite dead. Republicans have control of the House and Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) is seeking to resurrect the fighter. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is stumbling and the Air Force is now floating the idea to purchase more F-22s alongside additional F-16s—the Air Force’s current workhorse—to make up for delays. Two legs—the military and Congress—of what defense budget analyst Gordon Adams calls the “Iron Triangle” are now shaping up, and if the third leg, industry (in the form of F-22 manufacturer Lockheed Martin), gets behind the push for more Raptors the F-22 could become the latest defense program to have reports of its demise exaggerated.

But the F-22 is only the most prominent example of the parochial politics behind this defense budget. The other big case study is the Air Force’s benighted, decade-long effort to buy a new tanker aircraft. Representatives from Washington state and Kansas want the tanker built by Boeing, which will produce it in those states. Representatives from Alabama, on the other hand, want EADS to get the tanker contract and build it in Mobile.

This sort of political competition occurs across the defense spending spectrum. The Defense Department finds larger projects like shipbuilding easier to manage by splitting ship construction between different shipyards in different states—as it does for the Virginia-class submarine and its DDG-1000 and DDG-51 destroyers.

Defense spending is clearly first and foremost about jobs that the defense industry provides to home states and districts of elected officials. And after an election driven by the poor economic situation senators and representatives are likely to fight tooth and nail against defense cuts that would hit their districts. Their success will depend on how widely a particular system’s manufacturer has distributed the work on the system across the country, which makes a viable coalition on behalf of that system possible.

Even smaller coalitions can keep a defense program alive if they involve key people in leadership positions in Congress. But the political competition for defense spending and the local jobs it creates is a perennial issue exacerbated by the current economic situation.

What will make the new Congress more excitable than usual on the defense budget are the political conflicts. This is the “extra” layer. There’s the predictable conflict between progressives and conservatives, of course, but there’s also potential conflict within the conservative camp. A number of conservatives in the next Senate are calling for defense spending to be on the table when it comes to reducing the deficit, including Tom Coburn (R-OK), Bob Corker (R-TN), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Mark Kirk (R-IL).

At the same time, they’re vague on what they would cut and usually point to waste. Eliminating waste alone, however, will not yield the savings conservatives expect: Cuts in procurement, force structure, or personnel are the only real ways to bring about savings. Conservatives calling for a leaner defense budget will thus have to bite the bullet and name programs or aspects of the defense budget they are actually willing to cut. If not, they may be deficit peacocks when it comes to defense spending.

It’s also not hard to imagine these conservatives backing off defense cuts beyond “waste” given the preventive strike Washington’s conservative foreign policy establishment has mounted. The conservative foreign policy establishment—constituted of think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the new Foreign Policy Initiative—came out swinging against defense cuts even before the election. One op-ed written by two AEI defense experts explicitly targeted the so-called Tea Party’s antispending rhetoric.

The conservative foreign policy establishment isn’t targeting wayward right-wingers alone, though. A Wall Street Journal op-ed written by the heads of AEI, Heritage, and the Foreign Policy Initiative was as much a shot across the bow of the Obama administration as it was anyone else.

The conservative foreign policy establishment’s goal of shielding defense spending is seen most clearly, however, in the "Defending Defense" project run by AEI, Heritage, and the Foreign Policy Initiative. Again, this is in part directed against the administration. But it is also likely targeted at conservatives questioning defense spending and how it contributes to the deficit.

Both the "Defending Defense" project and the Wall Street Journal op-ed underscore the main point of conflict in the coming battle over the defense budget: the fight between the conservative foreign policy establishment and the Obama administration. President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have tried to get defense spending under control by ending or cutting certain programs like the F-22, airborne laser, or the new presidential helicopter while allowing for modest growth. Gates views these cuts as a prophylaxis for deeper ones later but the conservative foreign policy establishment views even these modest attempts to rein in defense spending as “weakness” on defense.

President Obama and Secretary Gates no doubt will be accused of cutting the defense budget and “gutting” the military by the conservative foreign policy establishment regardless of what they do. This despite the fact that President Obama has twice requested increases in the tens of billions of dollars in the base defense budget. Conservatives will also claim that domestic spending is what really needs to be cut—as the Wall Street Journal op-ed did—so that they can rally around a common budget agenda and drive away whatever differences appear to exist between them on defense spending.

Conservatives will likely unite, too, on missile defense in the coming budget battles. The one concrete defense budget measure in the GOP’s pre-election “Pledge to America” was to “fully fund” missile defense. They presumably want to do this along the lines envisioned by the Bush administration. The pledge justifies missile defense funding by citing the presumed threat from Iran, but President Obama’s missile defense plan counters this threat with more reliable technology that will be deployed faster than President Bush’s ill-conceived and unproven scheme.

Both the conservative foreign policy establishment and conservatives making noise about reducing defense spending will agree that missile defense spending should be increased. Tea Party candidate John Raese of West Virginia even made a name for himself during the campaign by calling for a 1,000-laser missile defense system at the cost of $20 billion. Of course, these groups likely want missile defense for different reasons. The foreign policy establishment wants it because it gives the U.S. military greater freedom of action overseas and the Tea Party because it means we don’t need alliances with foreign powers.

These partisan and ideological battles will take place alongside the ages-old parochial political considerations of members of Congress. How these crosscurrents will interact and shape the next defense budget is anyone’s guess at this early stage. But the process is sure to be wild.

Peter Juul is a Research Associate at American Progress, where he specializes in the Middle East, military affairs, and U.S. national security policy.

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Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst