America's allies and enemies will take note of Biden's low-priority defense budget

America's allies and enemies will take note of Biden's low-priority defense budget
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It has not gone without notice that the word “defense” did not appear in the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) “Fact Sheet” that accompanied the release of the fiscal year 2022 budget. There was no mention of “great power competition.” There was but one reference to China, supposedly a primary national security concern, in which the OMB merely stated that the “American Jobs Plan” would “position the United States to out-compete China.” Indeed, the thrust of the OMB statement was the budget’s focus on domestic challenges. Thus, in defining what it termed “our nation’s strength,” it outlined programs ranging from “historic investments in high-poverty schools,” to helping “to end the opioid crisis,” to “tackling the climate crisis,” to ending gun violence. 

How allies, partners and adversaries will interpret the absence of any mention of classic concepts of national security is anyone’s guess.

The Department of Defense (DOD) budget itself reflects a number of inconsistencies, especially given the department’s stated focus on China’s emergence as a major competitor in East Asia. The DOD budget presentation rightly highlights the importance of supporting technological advances to outpace its leading Chinese (and Russian) competitors. To that end, the budget includes increased funding for artificial intelligence, quantum computing, 5G, hypersonics and other advanced technologies. Yet, these are all areas in which China, and, for that matter, Russia, have already made great strides. For example, both countries boast hypersonic weapons; the United States has none. We are spending money to catch up.

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On the other hand, the budget actually reduces spending on science and technology, a category that comprises basic research, applied research and advanced technology development. These activities constitute building blocks for developing cutting-edge technologies. The Biden administration’s science and technology budget request totals only $14.7 billion, in contrast to the $15.9 billion that was approved for the FY 2020 program and the $16.8 billion that Congress enacted for FY 2021. In other words, even as the administration boasted of having increased funding for overall research and development, science and technology spending inexplicably declined by about 13 percent. 

It is noteworthy that virtually all of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) budget falls within the reduced science and technology budget line, but it is DARPA that long has served as the key defense agency for technological breakthroughs.

In response to congressional concerns that the administration allocate resources specifically for America’s posture in the Pacific, the FY 2022 budget identified $5.1 billion to fund the year-old Pacific Deterrence Initiative. DOD’s documents note that the budget allocates additional billions of dollars for programs that also could be applied to support East Asian operations. Nevertheless, precisely because these capabilities are not dedicated to Pacific operations, they might be required to support a contingency elsewhere in the world and not be available when needed in East Asia. That is expected to be the case, in light of Washington’s announcement that it will redeploy the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan from the Western Pacific to the Middle East to support the American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, temporarily leaving the East Asian region without U.S. carrier presence. No doubt observers in Beijing will take notice.

Service budgets also reflect some other puzzling decisions. The Army elected to preserve almost all of its end-strength at the expense of procurement, even though it is questionable, after America’s experience in Asian land wars, whether the Army would be a major player in a conflict with China as it was in the Middle East and Afghanistan. On the other hand, although there is widespread consensus that the Navy would have a critical role in an East Asian contingency, Navy procurement spending declines by nearly 6 percent, with only eight new ships requested in the FY 2022 budget, compared with 11 in FY 2020 and 10 in FY 2021. Moreover, the budget discontinues the purchase of four littoral combat ships, none of which has ever been put to sea, as well as an Aegis destroyer, which might have been expected to play a key role in any East Asian conflict.

Several members of Congress have voiced objections to these and other shortfalls in the defense budget. Other members contend that overall defense funding levels are far below those that the Commission on National Defense Strategy recommended in 2018. In the absence of budget caps now that the Budget Reduction Act no longer is in force, it is possible that Congress could increase the DOD top line. No less important, however, will be congressional action on both the budget’s details and its focus. 

America’s allies and friends will be watching carefully as Congress responds to a defense budget that, for the first time in many years, is not a top administration priority; so too, and far more ominously, will America’s enemies.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.