U.S. Air Force Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning stealth fighter flies over the San Francisco Bay in San Francisco, California on October 13, 2019.

U.S. Air Force Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning stealth fighter flies over the San Francisco Bay in San Francisco, California on October 13, 2019. Photo by Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images

What's In Biden’s First Budget? And How Late Will It Be?

The White House could submit its defense budget request later than any administration in at least a century.

It’s that time of year when the defense establishment tries to predict what will be included in the president’s defense budget request and what will be left out.

Lobbyists, experts and journalists analyze—or, more often, over analyze—just about every word uttered by any defense official, looking for hints and clues about what the military wants or doesn’t.

Here are a few things we already know: 

  • The 2022 Pentagon budget request will total $715 billion, up from the $705 billion Congress appropriated for this year.
  • It will be the first that is not subject to federal spending caps in nearly a decade.
  • The controversial war budget account, known as overseas contingency operations, or OCO, is being put out to pasture.

What we don’t know:

  • When the Biden administration will actually send the detailed budget request to Congress.
  • The nitty-gritty, programmatic details: how many of each plane, ship, armored vehicle, and missile are being requested, and at what cost.
  • The results of the Biden administration's National Defense Strategy process, which will be used to inform military spending in fiscal 2023 and the years beyond.

When will the request arrive?

It’s still unclear, but the Biden administration may submit the tardiest budget request in a century. The Obama administration submitted its first budget request on May 7, 2009. The Trump administration submitted its first spending request on May 23, 2017, which was the latest since the 1920s, said Todd Harrison, director of Defense Budget Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Last month, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said he wants the budget request by May 10. With each passing day, the possibility of lawmakers passing the budget by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, becomes increasingly unlikely. If Congress does not pass an appropriations bill, it must enact a continuing resolution, or CR, a stopgap measure that freezes spending at the prior year’s level. If it fails to act, the government will shut down.

“On average, when a budget request has been submitted on time, the delay in enacting the appropriations has only been about one month,” Harrison said during a Monday call with reporters. “In years when the budget request was submitted...more than a week late, we've seen the average CR go closer to...almost four months on average.”

Congress has a lot on its plate in the coming months, including the need to confirm a host of top-level Biden administration nominees for top Pentagon billets. Lawmakers are also expected to debate President Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure bill. Another possible hiccup in Congress’ review of the defense budget? There’s no multiyear budget deal in place. 

“The fact that there is no framework to actually negotiate a budget deal could further delay defense appropriations,” said Seamus Daniels, another CSIS budget analyst.

Acquisition vs. R&D

The Trump administration’s 2021 budget proposal projected a flat procurement budget and a declining research-and-development budget. Will the Biden administration reverse that?

“In RDT&E funding in particular, I think we might even see it go up a bit, because some of the early indications from this administration is that they really do want to double down on investing in the new technologies that we will need to actually implement this strategic transformation that's going on,” Harrison said.

Big-ticket programs

Army end strength. The Army’s top general has said in recent months that the service’s budget choice is likely to come down to buying new equipment or adding soldiers. While he wants both, Gen. James McConville said he’s looking for cheaper ways to train soldiers  so he doesn’t have to cut them.

Navy shipbuilding. In December, the Trump administration released a 30-year shipbuilding plan that called for 403 crewed warships and hundreds of unmanned ships, up from the Navy’s prior goal of 355 ships. 

“The fiscal reality is that's not going to happen,” Harrison said. “The question is, how quickly does this administration actually roll back those shipbuilding plans to something like we had seen before, or even less, and how do they reshape it as they try to make those shipbuilding plans more affordable, something that they can actually fit in the budget request?”

The Trump plan called for buying 12 new ships in fiscal 2022, Harrison said. He predicts the Navy will request between 10 and 12 ships and offer no details for a long-term shipbuilding plan, yet.

F-35 stealth fighter. There’s debate inside the Pentagon and out about just how many fifth-generation F-35s the Air Force needs. In recent months, top Air Force generals have been hot to trot for the Next-Generation Air Dominance, a new warplane secretly under development.

“I think the thing to watch from the F-35 program is not what's in the budget request,” Harrison said. “It's what Congress does with it.”

Congress routinely adds more F-35s than the Pentagon asks for each year, although some lawmakers have hinted that those days are over. Tuesday, a bipartisan group of 132 House lawmakers wrote to the leaders of the House Armed Services Committee and House Appropriations defense subcommittee urging continued support for the F-35 program. Over the past seven years, Congress has paid for 94 more jets than the Pentagon requested.

“Now I fully expect that in this budget request DOD is not going to make some huge shifts in the F-35 program,” Harrison said.

He expects the Pentagon to ask for 80 jets, “plus or minus five.”

Nuclear weapons. Harrison predicts the weapon delivery platforms, like the new B-21 bomber and Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM, will continue to get funding. However, Biden may cut funding for low-yield nuclear weapons and a new submarine-launched nuclear cruise missile, Harrison predicted

“I think they don't want to make any drastic changes right now, pending a new Nuclear Posture Review,” he said.

Harrison also predicts the Biden administration could slow down development of a new long-range nuclear cruise missile.

Missile defense. The Biden administration has already awarded contracts that will advance development of new missile interceptors designed to protect the U.S. from North Korean or Iranaian long-range missiles. 

The administration could look to divest existing missile defense systems, said Tom Karako, director of the CSIS Missile Defense Project. 

Space. While space has been and is expected to remain a top priority for the Pentagon, one question is if the Biden administration will continue funding Space Development Agency efforts to rapidly launch hundreds of low-Earth orbit satellites. Funding for the office was supposed to jump from $288 million today to $870 million in fiscal 2022.

“Will the Biden administration continue on that path for now,” Harrison said. “Will they request that 870 million? … If they do, that's going to show they're committed to these more resilient, innovative space architectures. If they don't, that could indicate that they don't really see the value of resilient space architectures.”

Countering China. “I think you will see [in the budget proposal] this larger concern about great power competition and our focus on that part of the world reflected in budget priorities,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said during a Monday briefing. The Pentagon’s China Task Force is expected to make recommendations as soon as next month, Kirby said.