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Biden’s Military Proposal Isn’t Up to the China Challenge

Seven things to know about the Biden administration’s Department of Defense budget request.
June 16, 2021
Biden’s Military Proposal Isn’t Up to the China Challenge

When then-President-elect Joe Biden waited to announce Lloyd Austin as his choice for secretary of defense until after tapping Jake Sullivan as national security advisor, Antony Blinken as secretary of state, and Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, a “source close to Biden” commented that Biden was signaling his intent to demilitarize the U.S. foreign policy: “This is not an administration that is going to put the Pentagon at the center of things.” Biden’s budget request for the Department of Defense, released in late May, confirms that intent—which is a shame.

The military is not the only tool of U.S. foreign policy. America’s economic strength, values, excellent corps of diplomats and intelligence officers, allies, and open society are all extraordinary assets.

But the military is America’s best asset. It is still the primary reason that no sane enemy dreams of attacking America. Our security umbrella is a major reason our allies follow our lead. The United States uses its military every day, not by shooting bullets and dropping bombs, but by maintaining the capacity of doing such things, discouraging bad actors from engaging in malign activities.

In recent years, however, the United States has experienced a relative decline in its military superiority to Russia and China, and now it suffers from regional inferiority to both. While Biden seeks a smaller role for the military in the competition, Russia and China disagree, believing that what has always been true remains true: The most important element of great power competition will be hard power. Which is why they have been strengthening theirs for years and decades.

As the Biden administration forms its response to military challenges around the world, here are seven things to know about the Defense Department budget proposal:

1) It spends less money. Many detractors have opined that the U.S. military budget is far superior to those of Russia’s and China’s combined. While technically true, this fact obscures something important: that the Russians and the Chinese benefit from cost-saving mechanisms we do not have, including stealing intellectual property, conscription (personnel costs account for nearly half of the DOD budget), cheaper costs of production and labor, and the lack of any hegemonic responsibilities.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy that then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis published was rather modest in its objectives, focusing almost exclusively on China while only paying lip-service to Russia and all but dismissing Iran, North Korea, and terrorism. The congressionally mandated Commission on National Defense Strategy warned that the military was unequipped to meet the requirements of Mattis’s strategy. The Trump administration intended to overcome the shortcomings via a 3 to 5 percent annual increase in real spending (inflation-adjusted) for ten years, but only managed to reach those goals for two years.

Biden is now proposing a decrease in defense spending in real dollars. In other words, Biden’s budget would consciously widen the gap between the National Defense Strategy as presently articulated and the resources to pursue it.

2) The Defense Department is an outlier. The Biden administration has shown that it is not terribly concerned with deficit spending. The civilian parts of the executive branch have requested budget increases across the board, totaling 16 percent more than current levels—which suggests that the DOD budget cut has more to do with symbolism.

When it comes to the military budget, Biden wants to stretch every penny. The administration has requested a 1.7 percent nominal increase over the current fiscal year. At a normal 2 percent inflation rate, this would still be a real decrease in real terms. With the return of inflation this year, the Pentagon’s purchasing power will be significantly diminished—after all, the military has to pay higher prices for gas, food, and air travel, too.

3) The administration wants to cut legacy programs. The Defense Department’s last major modernization effort started in 1980. Technologies that were cutting-edge then are several generations outdated now, but are still in use. The administration has argued that cutting these programs will help the DOD stretch its resources and overcome the modesty of its budget request.

That would be nice, but it’s extremely difficult politically. In his memoir, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates writes that he once attended a Senate hearing on military procurement. Sen. Patty Murray was insistent that the United States should “buy American” from Boeing instead of French Airbus. One of the secretary’s aides noticed that the senator, in whose state the headquarters of Boeing is located, was reading from a sheet with Boeing letterhead. In the end, Murray won. The military can propose to buy what it likes, but Congress can force it to buy what’s good for their constituents.

The four major military manufacturers—Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon—are headquartered in Virginia, Washington, Maryland, and Arizona, respectively. All eight of those states’ senators are moderate Democrats, meaning cutting legacy programs (read: existing manufacturing jobs) will face pushback from Biden’s own party.

But what about the war in Afghanistan—the ultimate “legacy program”? Withdrawing from Afghanistan, as President Biden has said he intends to do by September 11, 2021, could save money eventually but not this year. The relocation of forces and weapons will be costly, as Army Chief of Staff James McConville has warned. In addition, the administration has indicated that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is part of a broader plan to focus on terrorism in Africa, suggesting that as far as the budget is concerned, it’s a wash.

4) More research comes at the expense of more weapons. The administration is already boasting about the “largest ever” increase in the Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) budget. This is a much-needed development, capitalizing on an initiative of the previous administration. RDT&E, however, is meaningless without procurement. It generates knowledge of how to build weapons but not weapons themselves. Since the RDT&E budget was boosted under the Trump administration, it’s time to transfer that research into production. Instead, Biden’s proposal cuts the procurement budget. It especially makes little sense to cut the procurement budget while also dispensing with legacy systems. If the military gets rid of its old technology but doesn’t buy new tech to replace it, what will it use?

5) Nuclear weapons are the big winner. The Obama administration initiated the current nuclear modernization project. The controversial Trump administration Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) was a modest adjustment on the Obama administration’s NPR. Biden’s budget continues the pattern. With a $27.7 billion (5.1 percent) increase in the modernization budget, nuclear weapons are one of the few places that see boosts under Biden’s plan.

There are six key nuclear programs: The B-21 and the Long-Range Standoff Missile projects modernize the air leg of the nuclear triad. The Ground Based Strategic Deterrence system will replace the old Minuteman system that is in decline and will be useless soon. The Columbia-class submarine project strengthens the sea leg of the triad. The command and control modernization will update how orders are disseminated to nuclear forces. Last but not least, the Missile Defense Agency is tasked with strengthening homeland defense from nuclear missiles and giving America protection against nuclear blackmail. Per Biden’s proposal, each program would receive equal or additional funding from the previous year.

6) The Navy will shrink. The Navy faces a crisis. There are too many ships and too few sailors (including pilots) to operate them, which explains the several incidents of the past few years. There needs to be an adjustment of the sailor-to-vehicle ratio, and the administration has decided to fix it by decreasing the number of ships and aircraft. This is puzzling. Even though the military rivalry against China is primarily naval, Biden is aiming at a smaller Navy, including fewer much-needed destroyers.

7) There is no strategy. The Defense Department will publish a document called the “National Defense Strategy” next year, but the budget is the actual strategy, which is supposed to set the direction for the next few years. Unlike its predecessors, however, Biden’s budget has no 5-year trajectory. In other words, it lacks any vision. As Todd Harrison put it, this earns the budget an “incomplete” grade. It is obvious that Biden is trying to lessen America’s reliance on the military, but it remains unclear what role he expects the conventional force to play.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.