The FY2021 U.S. Defense Budget Request: A Dysfunctional Set of Strategic Blunders

By Anthony H. Cordesman

The President’s defense budget request for FY2021 does have some important virtues. It does contain a wide variety of important initiatives to improve the readiness and effectiveness of important elements pertaining to each military service, invest in force modernization, and support military personnel. At the same time, however, the Defense Budget Overview begins with the statement that the FY2021 request is a “Strategy Driven Budget” – but few things could be further from the truth.

The only “strategy” that is clearly reflected in the Department of Defense’s (DoD) FY2021 request is an effort to provide a justification for the separate spending goals of each military service. The end result turns the budget request into little more than an “Oliver Twist Strategy,” in which each military service asks for more money – a major component of the DoD’s defense-wide efforts – without meaningfully addressing the major strategic problems and challenges that the United States will face over the coming decade.

The DoD’s FY2021 budget request abandons virtually all of the past efforts to create an effective planning, programming, and budgeting system. It has devolved into a classic “input”-driven budget that focuses on meeting the spending goals of each military service without addressing the net assessments of threats, the role of strategic partners and allies, or the resulting levels of deterrence and war fighting capability.

To be specific, when it comes to strategy, it is a dysfunctional mess in each of the following nine critical areas. Worse, it does not address key interagency problems to develop an integrated civil-military approach to strategy, it has no meaningful future year plans and data, and it lacks any analysis on how defense spending relative to total federal spending compounds the broader problems in a total FY2021 budget request – components which make critical increases in the national deficit and the national debt.

  1. It Does Not Address Its Strategic Impact on Joint Warfare or the Mission of Any of the U.S. Combatant Commands
  2. It Has No Supporting Net Assessments of Threats for the United States and Competing National Security Efforts
  3. It Sets the Wrong Priorities for Dealing with China and Russia
  4. It Focuses on Transactional Strategic Bullying instead of Preserving and Strengthening Strategic Partnerships and Alliances
  5. It Has No Strategy for Ongoing Wars or for Overseas Contingency Operations
  6. It Does Not Have a “Whole of Government Approach” to Strategy – Defense Spending is Presented out of Context from the Civil Efforts of State, USAID, and other Government Agencies.
  7. It Puts No Real Effort to Go Beyond Input Budgeting for FY2021 in order to Present a Meaningful Future Year Defense Program (FYDP)
  8. It Fails to Tie Defense Spending to the Deficit and the National Debt
  9. It Fails to Tie U.S. Defense Spending to the Efforts of China, Russia, and Our Strategic Partners

This report entitled, The FY2021 U.S. Defense Budget Request: A Dysfunctional Set of Strategic Blunders, is available for download here

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.