Modernization and Great Power Competition Under Biden’s Defense Budget


By: Mia Vafa - Strategy & Policy Intern

As great power competition with China and Russia poses an increasingly near-term threat, the vitality of determining the best means for deterring and defending against future aggression also progresses. National defense strategy, and the proposed budget’s capacity to execute it, remained central throughout the House Armed Services Committee’s June 29th hearing. Witnesses Mandy Smithberger, the Director of the Center for Defense Information, Dr. Stacie Pettyjohn, a Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense Program at Center for a New American Security, and Roger Zakheim, Director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, joined Chairman Smith (D - WA), Ranking Member Rogers (R - AL), and other committee members to present non-governmental views on President Biden’s proposed FY 22 Department of Defense Budget.

Within opening statements and in response to Smith, the witnesses described different strategies for compensating against the evolving threats to U.S. military supremacy and, respectively, national security. Though the proposals were not entirely harmonious, each demonstrated a general consensus amongst the non-governmental perspective that persistent misalignment between strategy and resources posits an offensive opportunity for adversarial aggression, particularly in the Baltic and Indo-Pacific regions. Much of the contention regarding the transition from legacy systems to new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, evolves from this misalignment. Pettyjohn, Smithberger, and Zakheim each verbalized support for modernization, so long as it is done effectively and cost-efficiently; however, as witnesses’ testimonies convey, the DOD continues to experience great difficulty in achieving these procedural goals.

Smithberger exemplified failure to execute modernization—and more broadly, the national defense strategy—through the proposed retirement of four Littoral Combat ships. Though she supports this divestment, she believes it demonstrates overall wastefulness as the relatively new and costly ships should not have been procured initially. She lists F35s as a potentially similar instance of absent foresight and wasted appropriations, which could otherwise fund more successful modernization programs or the maintenance of deteriorating legacy systems. Littoral Combat ships, if retired, will comprise just some of the $46 billion forfeited by the Department of Defense on failed or canceled modernization efforts just within the last decade.

Pettyjohn concurred with Smithberger on the necessity of more diligent analysis in the future on how appropriated resources can and will be used to enact strategy. However, Pettyjohn believes the most appropriate strategy—and the only strategy that succeeded within her tabletop war games at CNAS—cannot be established under Biden’s topline. The “Full Spectrum Competition” strategy, which she believes most resembles Biden’s approach, is regarded as overstretched, technologically overmatched, and likely to fail in defending a large-scale attack on partners like Taiwan. Pettyjohn indicates that such outcomes call into question the United States’ ability to benefit from ‘deterrence by denial.’ These wargames help to demonstrate that, while modern munition will be necessary in the future, the transitional period may contribute to a more porous national defense than is desirable.

Still, witnesses prescribed tangible and achievable means for capitalizing on Biden’s proposed budget. Building off one another and referencing the most pressing regions, witnesses encouraged further procurement of undersea capabilities and various types of long-range munitions, like anti-ship and anti-radiation missiles, as well as the use of artificial intelligence and autonomy in all domain operations to reduce personnel costs. Similarly, witnesses noted the importance of hardening cybersecurity defenses to prevent cyber-attacks and soft power practices from China in particular.

More generally speaking, witnesses and members alike concurred on the vitality of overcoming the valley of death, which continues to plague modernization efforts. For this effort, Zakheim suggests incentivizing competition within the private sector. Other suggestions included introducing comprehensive auditing systems of military spending, specifically on how much is spent on service contracts and outsourcing. Auditing may prove particularly beneficial in overseeing infrastructure spending like shipyard maintenance and building. Smithberger noted that no improvements were made on several shipyards, despite the relative companies’ engagement in stock buybacks for shipyard maintenance. Within the context of imminent Chinese naval superiority, auditing could prove vital for budgetary purposes and national security.

As these efforts to modernize without weakening continue, the National Defense Industrial Association works towards supporting and strengthening the U.S. supply chain. NDIA President, General Hawk Carlisle, joined Roger Zakheim and other esteemed defense and budget experts to provide an in-depth analysis of U.S. capabilities corresponding to different budget scenarios. More recently, NDIA provided the House Armed Services Committee’s Critical Supply Chain Task Force with recommendations on how associations, the DOD, and Congress can address and overcome supply chain vulnerabilities and material readiness. Working with counterparts AIA and PSC, these recommendations indicated specific routes for improvement, such as improving transparency and accountability with the Defense Operation and Maintenance Accounts. Additionally, NDIA’s Business and Technology Magazine remains engaged in the NDAA’s ongoing course. Visit National Defense for further insight into the strategic impact of the FY 22 budget on fleet growth, hypersonic development, and more.

Topics: Budget

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