With the US economy doing so poorly amid massive shutdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and the national debt swelling precipitously thanks to massive stimulus efforts by the Trump administration, the possibility that the defense budget could face cutbacks in the future has to be seriously considered, Esper told an electronic audience via the Brookings Institution think tank on Monday.
“I am concerned, of course, that the massive infusion of dollars into the economy by the Congress and the executive branch, nearly $3 trillion, may throw us off that course,” Esper said in the interview, which was broadcast on the internet via webinar instead of to a live audience.
“That may lead to smaller defense budgets in the future at the critical time at which we need to continue making this adjustment where we look at China, then Russia, as our long-term strategic competitors,” he noted.
In June 2017, Pentagon leaders told US lawmakers the US military’s budget would have to sustain considerable annual growth over the next five years in order to meet the steep timetables set for readying forces for the next conflict with Russia or China.
Gen. Joe Dunford, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee the military needed to see annual budget growth of "3% just to maintain the competitive level,” adding they "need at least 5% for several years to come, before we can be competitive.”
“Frankly, my inclination is not to risk any in the modernization programs; it’s to go back and pull out more of the legacy programs,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon later Monday, when asked about priorities when it comes to cuts.
Instead, he said, it’s better to cut the older systems, many of which are expensive to maintain, but remain in use often simply for want of sufficient numbers of an adequate replacement.
“We need to move away from legacy [programs], and we need to invest those dollars into the future. We have a lot of legacy programs out there right now,” Esper said. “I could pick dozens out from all branches of the services. So that is where I would start.”
The Pentagon has undertaken some truly massive modernization programs in recent years, including initiatives for its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense missile interceptors, most of its helicopters, a new stealth bomber, a replacement for the humvee, a new line of aircraft carriers, a complete restructuring of the US Marine Corps and scores of other, smaller programs.
Nearly a decade ago, US lawmakers had put in place stringent measures to limit growth of the US national debt - measures thrown out last July when lawmakers adopted a bipartisan plan on raising the debt ceiling and providing for steady debt financing for two years.
The 2011 Budget Control Act, passed by Republican lawmakers in retribution for the Democrat-backed Affordable Care Act, set absolute limits on the debt and created automatic budget-cutting mechanisms, including indiscriminate reductions in spending across the entire budget in a process dubbed "sequestration.”
According to the US Debt Clock website, the debt at the time this article went to publication was approximately $24.9 trillion - roughly $2.8 trillion more than S&P Global Ratings projected in 2011 it would be by 2021.