WASHINGTON – The government's $3 trillion effort to rescue the economy from the coronavirus crisis is stirring worry at the Pentagon. Bulging federal deficits may force a reversal of years of big defense spending gains and threaten prized projects like the rebuilding of the nation's arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper says the sudden burst of deficit spending to prop up a damaged economy is bringing the Pentagon closer to a point where it will have to shed older weapons faster and tighten its belt.
“It has accelerated this day of reckoning,” Esper said in an Associated Press interview.
It also sets up confrontations with Congress over how that reckoning will be achieved. Past efforts to eliminate older weapons and to make other cost-saving moves like closing under-used military bases met resistance. This being a presidential election year, much of this struggle may slip to 2021. If presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins, the pace of defense cuts could speed up, if he follows the traditional Democratic path to put less emphasis on defense buildups.
After Congress passed four programs to sustain the economy through the virus shock, the budget deficit — the gap between what the government spends and what it collects in taxes — will hit a record $3.7 trillion this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. By the time the budget year ends in September, the government’s debt — its accumulated annual deficits — will equal 101% of the U.S. gross domestic product.
Rep. Ken Calvert of California, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, says defense budgets were strained even before this year's unplanned burst of deficit spending.
“There's no question that budgetary pressure will only increase now for all segments of our federal budget, including defense,” Calvert said.
For military leaders, the money crunch poses an economic threat that could undermine what they see as spending crucial to U.S. security.