The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden has requested an increase in defense spending. It’s not nearly enough.

A U.S. Marine during a military exercise in Evenes, Norway, earlier this month. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

President Biden’s budget request proposes a $31 billion increase in defense spending in the coming fiscal year. That may sound like a lot, but the 4 percent hike doesn’t even match our 7.9 percent inflation much less our urgent needs. At the very least, Congress should double that hike. Ideally, it would do much more.

The United States is the linchpin of global security for democracies everywhere. Its leadership role in NATO preserves Europe from Russian assault while a series of bilateral defense arrangements protects Asian democracies from Chinese aggression. The United States also has commitments in the Middle East and combats terrorism and drug trafficking in Africa and Latin America. That’s a heavy lift for any nation.

Unfortunately, the United States was straining under this load even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine showed the danger of a third world war was higher than expected. President George W. Bush transitioned U.S. military capability away from confronting large world powers toward fighting small wars against terrorists or other irregular opponents. Those smaller conflicts might have made sense at the time, given the weakness of China and Russia after 9/11. More than 20 years later, it means that many U.S. weapons systems are approaching the end of their useful life spans. China, on the other hand, is massively expanding its military with new, up-to-date technology.

The United States also skimped on forces needed to meet its commitments. During the Cold War, the nation’s defense strategy called for the capacity to fight two major wars simultaneously, much as it did against Germany and Japan during World War II. We still have defense commitments that could require us to do that if Russia and China launched coordinated attacks on the West. But we no longer have the military posture to fulfill that requirement. U.S. defense strategy now calls for the capacity to fight one major war. Rebuilding the military’s ability to fight in Europe and Asia at the same time would mean building larger forces than the United States possesses, especially for the Air Force and Navy.

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Biden’s proposed 4 percent defense hike is paltry compared with those needs. It envisions reducing the number of troops this year, not increasing them. Indeed, its proposed pay increase for soldiers and Defense Department employees doesn’t even match inflation. Defense experts had been calling for annual hikes of 3 to 5 percent above inflation before Russia’s invasion. Even that is probably too small now given the urgent threat to global democracies.

Meeting Russia’s challenge will force the United States to station more forces in Europe and build more bases closer to Russia’s borders. Moving heavy armor, Air Force units and other assets costs money. Replacing them so that U.S. strategic reserves can still meet our other challenges would cost even more. Biden’s budget comes up well short of meeting these basic needs.

U.S. allies have been acting with much more alacrity. Germany intends to increase its defense budget by 33 percent over just two years to beef up its weakened defenses, and other NATO allies plan to dramatically hike their real spending in the coming years. Japan has limited its defense spending to 1 percent of GDP for decades, but it plans to break that ceiling. Biden’s proposal, by contrast, would shrink U.S. defense spending as a share of gross domestic product. That’s not the signal a global leader should send.

Congress must provide the leadership that Biden has not. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says defense spending should be increased by 5 percent above inflation. That should be Congress’s baseline rather than its ceiling.

Even that’s going to be expensive. Five percent above inflation means a roughly 13 percent increase over last year’s figure, or about $95 billion. But compare that with Germany’s recent 100-billion euro defense spending hike with an economy roughly 20 percent the size of ours. If Germany can do it, so can we.

Congress stepped up to the plate last fiscal year, approving $740 billion for the Defense Department rather than the $715 billion Biden had proposed. Exceeding Biden’s request again will start to rebuild our national security and show our allies that our bite, if needed, would match our bark.