President Joe Biden has pledged an era of “extreme competition” with the People’s Republic of China. For the U.S., that means being able to challenge Beijing for the commanding heights of global commerce, to shape the rules around trade and technology, and—if push comes to shove—to fight and win a war with the world’s second largest economy. The question is how to steer the behemoth U.S. military, which has almost 2 million personnel across six branches, away from the Middle East and terrorism to focus on a new region and different threats, 20 years after the Sept. 11 attacks and the ensuing invasion of Afghanistan.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III has dubbed China “the pacing challenge”—military-industrial verbiage for the leading competitor. In June, Austin issued a directive aimed at reorienting the Department of Defense to better compete with Beijing. That echoed signals of a pivot under the past two presidential administrations.
Washington, however, is often better at articulating grand ambitions than following through on them. That’s especially true of the Pentagon, the world’s largest bureaucracy. The U.S. military’s priorities have been forged by two decades of warfare in the Middle East, and its spending habits are deeply entrenched in congressional politics. Even inside the building, officials warn of a “say/do gap” when it comes to taking on China. That gap persists, although Biden’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan may do more than the actions of his predecessors Barack Obama and Donald Trump to achieve a long-promised tilt toward Asia.
Concerned members of Congress are explicit about the problem. Representative Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Wisconsin and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, cites potential threats ranging from a Chinese invasion of Taiwan to China-made drones that the Pentagon keeps buying, despite fears of handing national security secrets to Beijing. “If we’re going to win the 21st century, the Pentagon is going to have to walk the walk and make the tough decisions needed to beat” the Chinese Communist Party, Gallagher says.
The U.S. military needs to focus its footprint and logistics in the Pacific and to invest in technologies meant to avoid disastrous ground wars and parry China’s incursions: cyber tools, artificial intelligence, satellites, microchips, and autonomous and hypersonic weapons. How well and how fast it can integrate nontraditional technologies “is going to determine whether the United States and its allies can shape the rules of the road in the future,” according to former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy. And those rules “are going to have a huge impact on the trading system, supply chains, and money flows,” not just the military, adds Flournoy, who served in the Obama and Clinton administrations.
The challenge becomes more pressing by the day. For two decades, Beijing has been working on anti-access missile capabilities that now threaten U.S. military supremacy in the Pacific. It’s making substantial progress on its third aircraft carrier and new missile silos in its western desert, and some reports suggest that it has begun operating military flights from disputed islands in the South China Sea. In 2020, China’s warplanes made incursions into the southern part of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on 87 days—more than in the previous five years combined. That number has already been surpassed this year.
Some branches of the military have proved more agile than others. The Marine Corps is completely divesting of its tanks and prioritizing small, dispersed units capable of operating in Pacific island chains. “The Marines took the bull by the horns,” says Robert Work, former deputy secretary of defense under Obama. “They made a plan to compete with China and defeat China if it comes to it, and do it within the top line they were assigned—they would not ask for additional money. In my view, they’ve led the department in the way the new fiscal outlook should be approached.”
The Army, by contrast, faces a difficult challenge. After two decades of focusing on counterinsurgency and desert warfare, it must prove that a large ground force is relevant to the Indo-Pacific theater, where amphibious, air, and naval capabilities have traditionally taken precedence. Army planners are purchasing fewer Apache, Black Hawk, and Chinook helicopters in favor of advanced rotorcraft that can fly twice as fast and twice as far as its workhorse choppers, all with an eye on the vast expanses of the Pacific region.
The Air Force and Navy are more natural fits for the region, but they too have challenges: The Navy is struggling to maintain its fleet and has a poor track record when it comes to building new classes of ships such as the Ford-class carriers. The Air Force, for its part, has been counting on the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a new refueling tanker, both of which have experienced significant delays, technology hiccups, and cost increases.
Then there’s the Department of Defense’s clearest constraint: money. The proposed budget for the year starting Oct. 1 would be 1.6% more than the $704 billion enacted for this year—a decrease of about 0.4% in real terms adjusted for inflation. Austin has said he thinks the military budget is sufficient to meet the challenge of an “increasingly assertive” China, but Republicans have called it inadequate.
Going forward, money will get even tighter. “Current OMB projections on spending are 2% year-over-year increases through to 2026 and 1% a year after that. That doesn’t even cover inflation,” says Work.
This leaves the Pentagon with some tough choices. Its $5.1 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative, created last year to ensure that proper resources were allocated to the region, has become emblematic of the department’s struggle to adapt. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have said that the fund is merely double-counting weapons purchases that were already planned, and that it doesn’t focus enough on missile defense, training with allies, and operations in the region.
Military procurement is set up to move slowly and conservatively, in order to keep big, complex legacy programs such as buying aircraft carriers on schedule and on budget. That might not work so well going forward. “You spend usually years at the front end defining and setting in stone your requirements, and then spend years in this cascading and sequential process,” says Flournoy. “If you look at many of the capabilities we’re talking about, whether it’s AI or software-enabled networks, these are emerging technologies that are developed through an agile development process with rapid development cycles.”
Besides belt-tightening and inertia inside the Pentagon, another roadblock is congressional priorities. Trade-offs perennially run into opposition in Congress, where lawmakers are beholden to weapons programs, no matter how old: They mean military bases, skilled manufacturing, and jobs in home districts.
Look at the history of the A-10 close-air support aircraft in Arizona. Senator Mark Kelly, a Democrat, is fighting to keep the planes from the graveyard, as his Republican predecessors Martha McSally and John McCain did. The A-10’s political stronghold is Tucson, where Davis-Monthan Air Force Base serves as the main training base for close-air support pilots. Any cuts to the fleet will have significant ripple effects on the local economy. Kelly, plus the state’s other Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema, and several other members of the Arizona delegation have introduced a resolution in the U.S. Senate and House declaring the A-10 “a critical component of America’s national security.”
Secretary Austin’s plans could also be upended by what his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld famously called the “unknown unknowns”—disruptive events that strike without warning. More than two decades ago, President George W. Bush dubbed China a “strategic competitor,” only to spend most of his presidency focused on wars across the greater Middle East. Now, as American troops leave Afghanistan, the reemergence of a terrorist threat from that country leaves open the possibility that the U.S. will be dragged back in.
Washington veterans have seen it all before. “There has been an attempt to pivot to the Pacific over several years, starting with President Obama. But the situation in Afghanistan, the situation in Iraq, now you have issues with Haiti—it’s difficult, practically, to quickly focus on the Pacific,” says Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee. “They are moving,” Reed says of Biden’s Pentagon, “but I think they would themselves say that they can move faster.”
Others are more optimistic, pointing out that the U.S., unlike China, doesn’t need to go it alone. “Our focus cannot be, ‘OK, we have got to build a military so that we can win the coming war with China,’” says Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “Our focus needs to be how we build a regional set of partnerships to better deter China from the things we do not want them to do.”
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