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Editorial: Peril, Perspective, and Resolutions

Dec. 3, 2021

Winding down to the end of 2021 and looking forward to the year ahead gives us an opportunity to count our blessings and take note of what ails us.  

Here are some things we learned in 2021: 

  • Our Republic is stronger and more resilient than we realize. The mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 tried but failed to disrupt the certification of the 2020 election. They shattered glass and shocked the system but left no permanent damage. Our institutions and Constitution survived intact. That’s something to be proud of.  
  • China grew more dangerous. The People’s Liberation Army continued its bully tactics in the South China Sea, and it increased flights into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. But more significantly, China also tripled its nuclear arsenal and successfully tested a hypersonic glide weapon that gives President Xi Jinping a first-strike weapon for which the United States has no defense. 
  • Russia grows more belligerent. Amassing troops on the border with Ukraine and fomenting a border crisis between Belarus and NATO-member Poland, President Vladimir Putin gains power from disorder. His destruction of a used-up satellite by means of a direct ascent weapon showed his disregard for others—including his own cosmonauts, who had to climb out of the International Space Station and shelter in their Soyuz space capsule after the satellite was destroyed while NASA tried to ensure the ISS would not be shredded by the space junk Putin’s missile left in its wake. 
  • Iran is still developing nuclear weapons. Like North Korea, Iran sees nuclear weapons as a guarantor of enduring power. Both nations are willing to let their people starve while they invest what treasure they have in illicit weapons development. Time is short before one, or both, have nuclear capability.
  • Allies question our resolve. The hasty and ill-planned withdrawal from Afghanistan rattled the confidence of every nation that has hitched its future security to American power and influence. Some, like Australia, will hold their ground. Others, like France, or Taiwan, or any number of countries in Africa and the Middle East, will hedge their bets by building alternative security ties elsewhere. Turkey’s dalliance with Russia is instructive and risky. 
  • America’s military advantages are eroding. The most critical elements—our Air and Space Forces—are too small to meet the requirements of the National Defense Strategy and too busy, as a result, to keep up with the demands of combatant commanders. The Air and Space Forces have more missions than resources necessary to execute them. It’s not that the COCOMs are being unreasonable, but that the Air and Space Forces are unreasonably small, and dangerously underfunded. 

Solving these problems need not add to our national defense bill if defense resources are simply reallocated from the Army, which is no longer fighting ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Air Force and Space Force, which will be indispensable in a peer conflict. Success depends on unity of effort across service and party lines and should begin with this bipartisan commitment: Never again should America finish a fiscal year without passing a budget for the next.  Simply living up to that promise saves billions. 

This year, as in 17 of the past 20, Congress failed to pass a defense appropriations bill by Sept. 30. As a result, the Pentagon has been living off a continuing resolution since Oct. 1. This has become routine. In 2017, it took 216 days—seven months—before Congress passed a defense budget. Last year’s delay was 80 days. This year is all but guaranteed to exceed 90 days. 

For the Air Force alone, a full-year CR would cost $11.8 billion in lost buying power, the service told the Congressional Research Service. Where does that money disappear to? In truth, into thin air. Delay causes uncertainty, and that, in turn, causes price increases. Time lost working through contingency spending plans or managing government shutdowns is time not used for more productive purposes. You don’t get it back. And the more one pushes funds out to the end of the year, when the rush to “use it or lose it” leads to short-fused decisions, the less value is derived for those payments. 

In 2019—the only time in the past decade when Congress passed a defense budget on time—the Air Force spent 25 percent of its funding in each of the first two quarters, 22 percent in the third, and 27 percent in the fourth. In other words, it was almost even. Last year, by contrast, the Air Force spent just 18 percent in a first quarter that was almost over before the budget was finally approved. Backloading spending like that makes cash flow harder for contractors and predictable deliveries harder to attain.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, estimated in November that a CR stretching the whole year long would cost $36 billion in lost buying power. That works out to roughly $3 billion per month, and given a best case for 2022, that means Congress will “only” waste $9 billion this year. 

Let’s consider what $9 billion might pay for: 

  • The entire $3 billion request for B-21 Raider development, and 
  • The entire $2.5 billion request for ICBM modernization—the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent—and
  • At least 42 F-35As. 

Or, $9 billion would fund more than half the Space Force budget. 

Now let’s look at the impact of CRs over time. Since 2010, the Pentagon has spent 45 months operating under CRs (including 18 days when appropriations lapsed completely, which is worse). Estimating the average waste inflicted by CRs over that period conservatively at $2 billion per month, that adds up to $90 billion in total. 

We could have bought a whole lot of defense for $90 billion. That’s enough to:

  • Cover the Department of the Air Force’s entire personnel budget for two and a half years, or 
  • Pay for 1,100 F-35As, or 62 percent of the entire planned buy, or
  • Fund 90 percent of the entire cost of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, which seeks to replace 400 nuclear-armed missiles in silos across the American West. 

Lawmakers routinely lament their inability to find the funds to pay for all the Pentagon’s needs. Yet they somehow sit back and allow this kind of waste to undercut our security. 

How’s this for a New Year’s Resolution, Congress? Pass a budget on time—or don’t get paid until you do.