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President Biden's Security Challenges

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By Jason Sibert

When it comes to political discussions about security, reality seems to evade the conversation.

President Donald Trump's last U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) budget request, sent to Congress in January 2020, was for $740.5 billion. This was about a $100 billion increase over the FY 2017 budget of the Barack Obama administration. This massive increase was based on a faulty premise - that the Obama administration had significantly underfunded defense and that the Pentagon was severely depleted, the military lacked modern and sufficient equipment, and the Trump administration was thus facing a massive readiness crisis when it took over the government in 2017. But objective analysis demonstrates that this was not the case. If one controls for inflation, President Barack Obama spent $400 million more on defense in his first administration than Trump did in his four years in office. When growth in the defense budget did slow in Obama's second term, it was because of the Budget Control Act (BCA) and the triggering of sequestration.

The defense budget President Joe Biden inherited is higher than it was in the Cold War under President Ronald Reagan. We currently spend more than the next 10 countries combined on defense, and it consumes more than half of the discretionary budget. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley recently predicted that the struggling economy and the continued COVID-19 pandemic would put downward pressure on future military spending. The Trump administration in part funded the defense increase by slashing the budgets of agencies, such as the U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which also contribute significantly to national security.

President Biden must consider if he can reduce the size of the total defense budget, including the portion of the U.S. Energy Department and other federal agencies, from the proposed $755 billion for FY 2022 to about $700 billion, as suggested by Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. If he does opt to reduce the budget, it could free up funds for more COVID-19 relief or for rebuilding U.S. infrastructure.

To provide real security, Biden must boost funding for non-military portions of our national security - the State Department and USAID. When on the campaign trail, Biden provided some idea of his view of security, as he said he would emphasize diplomacy and economic aid over an aging military infrastructure. For too long, the U.S. government normalized the overreliance on DOD, leading to a disproportionate lack of funding for other federal agencies that simultaneously promote national security interests. For example, the State Department received about $50 billion in FY 2020 compared with the DOD's $740 billion. The Trump Administration cut the State Department's budget 22 percent.

President Biden has a unique opportunity to increase our standing in the world by increasing funding for the diplomatic corps. Now that Biden has extended the New START treaty for five years, he must decide whether he will fulfill his campaign pledge to narrow the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. military doctrine. The administration must consider whether it will continue to fund the development and deployment of a whole host of nuclear weapons or if it will follow the less aggressive Democratic Party platform. While the platform pledged to maintain a strong credible deterrent, it also called for reducing overreliance and excessive expenditures on nuclear weapons.

Nuclear strategists such as former Secretary of Defense William Perry and House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-WA) called the new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)the land-based component of the nuclear triadunnecessary. For FY 2022 alone, the cost of this program is projected to be about $96 billion, up from $85 billion in FY 2021, and it is estimated to cost at least $264 billion before it is finished. The Trump administration made canceling this system even more difficult by recently awarding the contract to build the new ICBM to Northrop Grumman.

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Jason Sibert worked for the Suburban Journals in the St. Louis area as a staff writer for a decade. His work has been published in a variety of publications since then and he is currently the executive director of the Peace Economy Project.
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