We navalists are favored in this Presidential Election with the prospect of candidates who seem implicitly to value the virtues of American Seapower. The extent to which the strength of our Fleet is an issue in this election is unmatched in the other Presidential Elections in my voting life. Putting aside for the moment the circular firing squad that is Sequestration (which I realize is an important limiting factor in this discussion), it appears to me that no matter what the outcome of November’s election, the Navy is likely to receive additional attention from policy makers and additional resources to match. The latter condition being achieved through either plus-ups in real terms, a larger piece of a smaller pie, or a combination of both.
When I engage in conversations about a strengthened Navy, invariably the question will arise “where will the money come from?” We saw it in the interplay between former Navy Secretaries Lehman and Danzig in this blog’s Five Year Anniversary Commemoration. We see it in the editorial pages and websites of major media organizations who love to tell us that “It Doesn’t Add Up” when one of the candidates promotes a plan likely to increase defense spending.
Implicit in these questions is an almost reflexive rejection of three notions: 1) that our federal budget is a matter of choice–even the “non-discretionary” portions 2) that a President’s policy preferences are generally not ignored by the legislature, even when it of different parties and 3) that the current state of economic malaise will eventually improve, and with it, generate additional tax revenue (in ceteris paribus). Put another way, there is a general bias toward the latest budget in a manner that suggests that the art of the possible had been somehow exhausted in its creation, and that all remains for the future is tinkering on the margins. This is rubbish.
The next President—and Congress–has an enormous number of options available with which to fund a strengthened U.S. Navy. Our national budget during the most recently completed FY was over $3.5 trillion, the lion’s share of which is parsed out according to legislated terms–be they annual appropriations or automatic disbursements resulting from prior legislation. The point in raising this distinction without a difference is that either can be effectively altered through the legislative process. That’s right–either. As a society, we are not bound to entitlement spending formulas, nor are we bound to defense spending formulas that oversubscribe to strategically questionable assumptions. All of it should be on the table.
Whether the Navy is strengthened under the next Administration is a reflection of the relationship between Presidential priority and Presidential leadership. In conversations with senior officials of the current Administration about how difficult it is to “find money” in the defense budget for additional spending on the Navy, the same refrain is offered over and over: “until you get in here and look at the budget, you have no idea how hard it is to make things happen.” Implicit in these statements is the same fatalism that underpins the notions I described in the second paragraph of this post. That is, the way it is, is the way it will always be. It does not have to be so–and this is what Presidential leadership is all about. If the President wants to strengthen the Navy, the Navy will be strengthened.