Budget Battles
Putin Panic Triggers Pentagon Spending Spree

The 1980s are calling, and they want their military budget back. Reuters reports that top U.S. military brass are increasingly worried about the threat from Russia and are seeking to prioritize countermeasures in the next defense budget:

“Russia is the No. 1 threat to the United States. We have a number of threats that we’re dealing with, but Russia could be, because of the nuclear aspect, an existential threat to the United States,” Air Force Secretary Deborah James told Reuters in an interview at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum.

James, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson and Pentagon chief arms buyer Frank Kendall, all voiced growing concern about Russia’s increasingly aggressive behavior in interviews late on Saturday. […]

None of the officials gave details about how the concerns would affect the fiscal 2018 budget request, but defense officials have pointed to the need to focus on areas such as cyber security, space, nuclear capabilities and missile defense, where Russia has developed new capabilities in recent years.

As Reuters notes, the 2018 budget request is likely due for a substantial revision once Donald Trump takes office. And despite much handwringing about Trump’s unconventional stance toward Russia, early signs suggest that Trump will seek to beef up defense spending vis-a-vis Russia to engage with Putin from a position of strength.

Most significantly, in his choice of General James “Mad Dog” Mattis as Secretary of Defense, Trump is empowering a major Russia hawk. At a speech last year, for instance, Mattis expressed concern over Russia’s provocative saber rattling, claiming that Putin’s goal is “to break NATO apart” and that Russia’s moves in Ukraine were “much more severe” than commonly realized. If confirmed, Mattis is sure to bring these long-held views of the Russian threat into budget deliberations at the Pentagon.

Even as Putin’s provocations drive an impending spending spree, however, it is worth remembering that Russia’s own military technology is hardly awe-inspiring. On Monday, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the beleaguered Admiral Kuznetsov, had another mishap as a fighter jet returning from a Syria raid failed to catch the carrier’s faulty arresting cable and crashed into the Mediterranean. This was the second such crash in less than a month.

We have written in the past about the Russian rustbuckets that have carried out Putin’s mission in Syria, but the lesson bears repeating: Russia’s dominance in that conflict and others is less a matter of superior capabilities than shrewd opportunism. It is true that Russia has been more aggressive of late—with its missile deployments to Kaliningrad, brazen bombings in Syria, and insidious cyber attacks—and the Defense Department is certainly justified in taking such threats into account as it determines spending priorities. Yet Russia’s newfound assertiveness on the world stage is largely the result of the political space it has been given to operate there. If a Trump administration hopes to minimize the Russian threat, it will need to come up with a smart strategy, not just a ballooning budget.

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