Biden Looks to the Future in First Defense Budget

But Biden’s planned cuts to current generation U.S. jets and ships and his makeover of the nuclear arsenal are likely to meet criticism in Congress.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the Defense Department.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the Defense Department.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the Defense Department in Washington on Feb. 10. Alex Brandon/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

For the Biden administration, the U.S. Defense Department needs to start shifting away from outdated weapons systems and vulnerable platforms to keep up with the Chinese military’s leap forward in military technology.

That’s according to the Pentagon’s $715 billion budget request released on Friday, which calls for paring back the Army’s budget and purchases of existing fighter jets, tanks, and ships while developing unmanned ships and sweeping modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

“You’ll see a significant investment in our naval forces, long-range fires, and probably the largest ever request for RDT&E for development of technologies,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers on Thursday, using an acronym to describe the Pentagon’s research and development efforts.

For the Biden administration, the U.S. Defense Department needs to start shifting away from outdated weapons systems and vulnerable platforms to keep up with the Chinese military’s leap forward in military technology.

That’s according to the Pentagon’s $715 billion budget request released on Friday, which calls for paring back the Army’s budget and purchases of existing fighter jets, tanks, and ships while developing unmanned ships and sweeping modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

“You’ll see a significant investment in our naval forces, long-range fires, and probably the largest ever request for RDT&E for development of technologies,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers on Thursday, using an acronym to describe the Pentagon’s research and development efforts.

By slightly favoring the future over the present, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley put it to Congress in the same budget preview hearing yesterday, U.S. President Joe Biden’s first budget is also a notable departure from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies, which called for a 355-ship U.S. Navy and projected a long-term decrease for researching and developing future platforms.

But prioritizing the future over the present isn’t likely to be popular, even among some Democrats on Capitol Hill, who are hoping to bring Pentagon dollars back to bases, dry docks, shipyards, and manufacturing plants in their districts. The budget makes no mention of the much-ballyhooed Trump ship goal: Biden is only asking for $21 billion to build new vessels this year, a substantial decrease from Trump’s plans to ask for $27 billion to build 82 new ships by 2026. House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee chairperson Joe Courtney already called Biden’s request for eight new ships “pathetic,” and it will likely set up a fight to add money in Congress.

There are other small but significant changes likely to prompt fights on Capitol Hill. The Pentagon wants to cut the number of F-35 fighter jets it’s buying to 85—part of a nearly 10 percent haircut for Pentagon purchases of current generation Air Force platforms—to keep the number of Army troops basically flat and to get rid of four littoral combat ships and Coast Guard cutters. Some high-profile members, such as House Armed Services Committee Vice Chair Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat and former Navy surface warfare officer, have pushed back on decommissioning littoral combat ship platforms, arguing the Pentagon shouldn’t abandon ships still in service for future technologies that might not pan out.

The budget isn’t likely to win quick support from the other side of the aisle either. Republican leaders in Congress, such as Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has expressed frustration that the $715 billion top-line figure for defense will not increase spending above inflation, which he said would leave the United States less ready to take on China.

“It definitely doesn’t provide the 3 to 5 percent real growth we really need to take on the threats posed by our adversaries like China,” Inhofe said in a floor speech in April. Recently retired Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. Phil Davidson warned Congress in March that China could move to invade Taiwan within the next six years.

But lawmakers who have been pushing since the Trump administration to shift resources toward the Indo-Pacific, such as Inhofe, will find things to like in Biden’s wish list.

The Pentagon is asking for nearly $5.1 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a fund created by Congress during the last budget cycle to backstop the long-stalled U.S. pivot to Asia with more defense spending. That’s $400 million more than Davidson originally asked for and includes spending nearly $120 million to assess new missile defenses and begin buying radar and other materials for an Aegis Ashore missile defense battery. This will provide cover for U.S. troops stationed in Guam and help investments in missiles that bust through Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty limits, a pact with Russia that the United States left in 2019.

But the administration, which is not submitting a future year projection of the defense budget that typically accompanies the request, is not providing answers on the nearly $23 billion Indo-Pacific Command wants over the next six years to deal with the China threat. Congress is still hoping for answers on what the administration’s China and global force posture reviews will mean for the movement of U.S. troops around the world, and the Pentagon has yet to crack the seal on either document.

And despite the recent flare up in the Middle East and the Pentagon’s dispatch of the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan carrier strike group from Japan to the Persian Gulf to cover departing U.S. troops, Biden is hoping to thin out U.S. military investment in the region and siphon off the war funding that has backed it up. Biden is hoping to do away with the so-called Overseas Contingency Operations account that has paid for U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—long derided as a slush fund by progressives—slashing the fund by 40 percent with cuts to U.S. training for Iraqi and Syrian counter-Islamic State forces. Another $800 million was also cut from funding to counter Russia in Europe.

Yet even though the budget includes $500 million to fight COVID-19 and $617 million to make U.S. bases and weapons systems more energy efficient, progressives are still balking at the eye-popping price tag for the Pentagon’s operations, which some hope to see shifted back to domestic priorities. In particular, the proposed $2.6 billion to revamp U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles, nearly double last year’s spending, is likely to raise eyebrows among skeptics and arms control advocates in the Democratic caucus.

“At over $750 billion, the Biden administrations proposal for spending on the Pentagon and related work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy is both excessive and misguided,” said William Hartung, director of the arms and security initiative at the Center for International Policy, a doveish think tank.

“At a time when the greatest challenges to human lives and livelihoods stem from threats like pandemics and climate change, sustaining Pentagon spending at over three quarters of a trillion dollars a year is both bad budgeting and bad security policy,” Hartung said.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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