Report

U.S. Puts Money Where Its Mouth Is on China

The military’s funding boost is aimed at deterring Beijing, but a budget fight could jeopardize the strategy.

Japanese soldiers storm a beach in the Philippines on the South China Sea in joint military exercises with U.S. and Filipino troops on Oct. 6. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)
Japanese soldiers storm a beach in the Philippines on the South China Sea in joint military exercises with U.S. and Filipino troops on Oct. 6. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration is touting as momentous its shift in military focus away from counterterrorism to competition with peer adversaries such as China—and its boost in military spending to confront Beijing’s economic and military heft.

But caps on defense spending and possible setbacks for Republicans in the U.S. midterm elections in November could put the new strategy in jeopardy.

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan outlined the new national defense strategy to a small group of reporters at the Pentagon last week, describing it as “historic.”

“It is the beginning of the retooling of the Department of Defense for great-power competition,” he said.

The shift comes as the Trump administration escalates its confrontation with China to new levels. Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday delivered a searing indictment of the threat China posed to U.S. interests, attacking Beijing for meddling in next month’s midterm elections. Trump has also ordered a new round of harsh tariffs on Chinese goods, and a U.S. guided-missile destroyer recently patrolled near at least two Chinese-held outposts in the disputed Spratly island chain in the South China Sea.

Against this backdrop, the cash increase for fiscal year 2019 is undoubtedly a win, both for the U.S. military and for the Trump administration. It is significant not just in the number of dollars it provides for military operations, nearly $700 billion. It also reflects the first time in a decade that Congress reached an agreement on the annual budget for the Defense Department on schedule, allowing the Pentagon to begin the fiscal year on Oct. 1 with the money it needs for the next 12 months.

“We are spending more now in the base defense budget than we were at the peak of the Reagan buildup,” said Todd Harrison, a budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, during a recent press conference.

The additional money will be put toward building the military needed to prepare for a conflict with China in particular, top Pentagon officials told reporters. Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist explained last week that the types of conflicts the military could expect to face in the Pacific were very different from those it was used to seeing in the Middle East in recent years and therefore required very different types of forces.

For example, the United States will need stealth, radar-evading bombers and fighters to get past China’s advanced anti-aircraft systems, military officials and experts say. Aging jets, such as A-10s and B-52s, which have been flown to their limits in the Middle East over the past few decades, will not survive in a conflict in Asia.

The Pentagon is particularly concerned about a potential confrontation in the South China Sea that could escalate into a broader war, including a close call between U.S. and Chinese naval vessels or aircraft or an accidental collision. It’s also possible that war with China could break out over the collapse of the North Korean regime. In either case, China has the military capability to hold at risk U.S. ships and aircraft near the mainland.

“In the Middle East, you generally operate with somebody who’s not flying airplanes over your infantry’s head. They are not doing the same type of damage,” Norquist said during the roundtable. “You can’t presume a flight in the Pacific looks anything like that.”

The new environment “changes the way you train, it changes the way you fight, it changes the way you deploy,” Norquist stressed.

The approximately $670 billion defense budget this year will allow the Pentagon to buy the advanced equipment it needs for the new strategy and modernize old weapon systems, the officials said.

Among other things, Congress has allotted funding for 15 more stealth F-35 fighter jets than the Pentagon requested; increased investment in training and armaments for infantry squads in close combat; increased production of smart bomb guidance systems; modernizing the nuclear deterrent; fortifying the missile defense capability in Alaska, California, and Europe; upgrading the Army’s Abrams tanks; and expanding the Navy’s fleet to 355 ships.

The budget also provides money to advance new technology, such as artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons that can travel five times faster than the speed of sound. This is a pointed signal to China, which experts say is on a path to surpass the United States as the world leader in AI by 2030.

But with budget caps set to kick back in the next year—under a procedure known as sequestration—it’s not clear that the administration will be able to follow through on all this. Lawmakers reached a two-year budget deal to provide relief in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 from the Budget Control Act of 2011, which imposes across-the-board cuts to defense and discretionary spending, but the cuts are set to return in fiscal year 2020.

And if Democrats take the House of Representatives in the November midterm elections, it’s unlikely that Congress will vote to continue funding the military at such high levels, Harrison warned.

“We had a big budget increase from this budget deal, but there is no guarantee on the future of what’s going to happen,” Harrison said. “I wouldn’t say [the national defense strategy] is dead. I’m going to say it’s going to have to be paused.”

Norquist acknowledged that the return of the budget caps would create challenges for the planned shift. But the administration is well prepared to defend its new military strategy to Congress and to the American public, he said.

“We’ve been working really hard to demonstrate we have a plan and we’re making progress … to help people understand what it is we’re doing. They are going to have to make a judgment call,” Shanahan said. “The more people understand what [the tradeoffs are], I think we’ll get a better outcome.”

“But,” he admitted, “it’s going to be a heavy lift.”

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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