Military Spending and the New Arms Race

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

OPINION — The Senate Armed Services Committee, by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 23-to-3 last Thursday, approved a fiscal 2023 Defense Authorization Bill that – among other things – pays for U.S. support of Ukraine’s defense against Russia and prepares for a possible fight with China over Taiwan. The measure also allows for the U.S. to join Moscow and Beijing in a nuclear arms race and another one in cyberspace.

To meet these and other various threats, the Senate panel has added a whopping $45 billion to President Biden’s fiscal 2023 proposed defense request, which itself was over $30 billion above this year’s fiscal 2022 budget.

A closer examination of what the Senate committee is proposing is worthwhile because it sets the stage for a coming defense budget fight in Congress – since the Democratic-controlled House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee last Wednesday, approved a Defense Appropriations Bill roughly in line with the Biden proposal.

In short, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved $817.3 billion for the Defense Department next year, while the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee approved $761.7 billion.

Both are tentative figures, and these bills still have a long way to go. House and Senate authorizers must still agree on a fiscal 2023 authorized Pentagon budget and even then, appropriators often don’t provide funds that authorizers approve.

There are not only enormous dollar differences, there are also substantive disagreements on what next year’s funds should pay for and those are worth considering.

The Senate committee’s $45 billion add-ons to the Biden defense budget include funds to meet the growing effects of inflation (the Biden budget provided roughly for 4 percent inflation, it’s now at 8 percent); additional security assistance to Ukraine ($800 million); accelerating production of certain munitions and capacity for increased future production ($2.7 billion); providing additional resources for service and combatant command requirements (the combatant commanders’ so-called ‘unfunded lists’) and added military construction projects.

The Armed Services Committee bill would also authorize $1 billion in funding for the National Defense Stockpile in fiscal 2023, (Biden asked for $253.5 million) to “acquire strategic and critical minerals currently in shortfall.” The committee’s approach would double the value of stockpiled rare earth minerals (titanium, tungsten, cobalt and antimony) that are needed for defense products.  Many of these rare earth minerals are currently purchased from China.

The bill also authorizes significant funding increases for game-changing technologies like
microelectronics, hypersonic weapons, and low-cost, unmanned aircraft.

One interesting committee addition is the authorization of $183.7 million for the continued training and equipping of vetted Syrian groups and individuals, along with the extension of the waiver for capping construction costs of temporary and humane detention facilities for one year.

It’s a reminder that we still have some 900 troops in northeastern Syria training and advising Syrian Kurdish forces in an effort to keep the Islamic State from resurging. There are also some 4,000 Islamic State prisoners in a complex controlled with the aid of Syrian Kurds.

The whole situation took on new meaning last week, post the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when Russian aircraft carried out air strikes near where U.S. forces were training Syrian Kurds. At almost the same time, U.S. F-16 fighters were scrambled in an area in northeast Syria where the U.S. was reportedly going after an Islamic State bomb maker.

The Biden budget has $11.2 billion for Cyberspace Activities to which the Senate committee added another $180 million. That would be for U.S. Cyber Command to pay for five more Cyber Mission Force teams to be added to the 133 teams that are already operational. In addition, the panel added another $44 million to support the command’s Hunt Forward teams that operate overseas, plus another $50 million for the command’s development budget for work on artificial intelligence systems and new applications.

Cyber Command has shown its worth in the Ukraine operation. However, the Senate committee’s increases in some other areas need further examination. Perhaps the biggest is in its support of the military’s proposed expansion plans to confront China in the Pacific area.

The Biden budget proposal was large enough, providing U.S. Indo-Pacific Command with $6.1 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative. That includes new military construction in the area, added steps for defense of Guam including new missile warning and tracking capabilities, and multinational information sharing.

To that, the Senate panel added another $1.01 billion to pay for unfunded requirements identified by the Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. The committee also proposed U.S. military officials engage with Taiwanese “to develop and implement a multiyear plan to provide for the acquisition of appropriate defensive capabilities by Taiwan and to engage with Taiwan in a series of combined trainings, exercises, and planning activities.”

I have written before that Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019, and since, has framed “reunification” with Taiwan as a requirement for achieving the “China Dream,” tied to the Chinese Communist Party’s longstanding goals for 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China’s founding.

More recently, there have been estimates that by 2035, the Chinese would have the war-fighting capability to carry out an invasion of Taiwan. Then last year, a hawkish Chinese academic predicted that by 2027, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army founding, Xi would employ force to take over Taiwan.

The Chinese academic, ironically, was following a March 2021 statement by Adm. Phil Davidson, the since-retired commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year with regard to taking Taiwan by force, “I think the threat is manifest during this decade — in fact, in the next six years.”

Something similar is going on in the nuclear weapons field.

The Pentagon last year said that by 2030, China could have 1,000 nuclear warheads, based on Beijing’s current rapid development of its own Triad of land, sea and air delivery systems.

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China’s Global Times recently carried a long article hailing Beijing’s successful test of an antiballistic missile along with the beginning of construction on a third Chinese aircraft carrier. Buried in the story, is China’s justification for working on its ABM system, “U.S. attempts to blackmail China with modern, nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles and deploying intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the Asia-Pacific region on the doorsteps of China.”

The U.S. is planning a new ICBM, but as far as I know, there are no plans for a new intermediate-range ballistic missile, particularly for the Asia-Pacific region. There had been plans in the Trump administration to develop a new nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N). And the Biden administration had zeroed out those development funds but last week, the Senate Arms Services Committee put back $25 million for continued research on the SLCM-N missile in their version of the fiscal 2023 authorization bill. Also, they authorized another $20 million for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Strategic Administration to continue research and development of the W80-4 warhead for the SLCM-N.

I question the committee’s decisions to restore that funding. This is another example of a nuclear weapon being pushed as a response to weapons that our potential adversaries have, without a rational argument that it would make a difference – if any nuclear weapons were ever to be used. The U.S. already has lower-yield, deployed, tactical nuclear bombs, air-launched cruise missiles, and, most recently, low-yield warheads on sub-launched strategic ballistic missiles. What more do you need?

As Adm. Michael M. Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, told the House Armed Services Committee last month, having served on a nuclear capable surface ship in the 1980s, having a nuclear weapon, “does not come without cost.”

Gilday went on, “There is a significant amount of attention that has to be paid to any platform that carries that type of weapon. In terms of training, in terms of sustainability, in terms of reliability, in terms of the force’s readiness to be able to use — to be able to conduct that mission.”

Gilday concluded, “I’m not convinced yet that we need to make a $31 billion investment in that particular system [SLCM-N] to close that particular gap.” But he added, “I do think that it makes sense to me that we keep a small amount of money against R & D to keep that — to keep that warm if you will within the industrial base while we get a better understanding of the world we live in with two nuclear — two nuclear capable peer — peer competitors.”

The truth is there is a U.S. military buildup around China at the same time that China, itself, is undergoing a similar military expansion.

It’s what’s called an arms race, and Washington and Beijing ought to find a way to keep it under control.

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