By Oren Liebermann, Ellie Kaufman and Jeremy Herb, CNN
President Joe Biden’s proposed fiscal year 2023 Pentagon budget includes $813 billion in spending for national defense, a 4% increase of $31 billion from the spending package signed into law earlier this month.
The Biden administration’s defense budget remains focused on China as the primary strategic challenge, with an emphasis on strengthening European security in light of the threat posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“If you look across the board at their capability, their economy, China remains our most challenging strategic threat. That’s what the strategy says, that’s what the budget says,” a senior defense official told reporters ahead of the budget release.
The Biden administration’s proposal includes $773 billion in funding specifically for the Pentagon in the coming year. Congress, which will ultimately set spending levels for the federal government, is likely to boost that figure higher, just as it did in the fiscal year 2022 spending package.
Republicans quickly responded to the Pentagon’s budget rollout by arguing it wasn’t enough for the US military in the face of Russia’s attack on Ukraine and China’s military investments. Liberal Democrats, however, criticized the Biden administration for ramping up the defense budget at all.
While the 2023 budget proposal was crafted before Russia invaded Ukraine last month, the Biden administration’s defense budget recognizes the “acute threat” posed by Russia, Defense Department budget documents say. Russia “is pursuing a political, economic and military strategy that seeks to fracture NATO,” the Pentagon said.
The defense budget includes $6.9 billion in funding for a European Deterrence Initiative intended to counter Russian aggression and support Ukraine — funding that the White House touted in a fact sheet rolling out the entire federal budget proposal on Monday.
In the fiscal year 2022 spending bill approved last month, Congress passed a $13.6 billion supplemental funding bill to provide security assistance to Ukraine and help resupply the Ukrainians with weapons.
It’s virtually impossible to estimate how long the war between Russia and Ukraine will last, making it incredibly difficult to know whether the US will provide more in security assistance to Kyiv. The US has added thousands of troops to eastern Europe on temporary deployments to bolster NATO’s eastern flank.
“The hard question is whether this is going to last for a short time or a long time,” the official said. “I would certainly say that it is possible that there will be a supplemental for Ukraine.”
Additional security assistance bills for Ukraine would also require congressional action. Pentagon comptroller Michael McCord suggested to reporters Monday that an additional supplemental for Ukraine was likely later this year.
Modernizing the military
The US Army’s overall troop levels are poised to drop by 3,000. The US Navy proposes decommissioning 24 ships, including nine littoral combat ships and five cruisers. The embattled littoral combat ships have faced perennial problems, including repeated breakdowns and questions about their limited armament.
The ships were hailed as part of the US deterrent against China, since they were designed to operate in shallow waters like the South China Sea. But the decomissioning of so many in one year appears to be an acknowledgment that the expensive surface combatants have failed to live up to expectations.
And in the air, the Pentagon only plans to purchase 61 F-35 aircraft, compared to the 85 purchased last year. The Air Force is also proposing the retirement of A-10 attack planes and F-22 fighters.
All of those plans are likely face pushback from Congress, which has repeatedly resisted cutbacks that would hurt weapons suppliers based in their districts or bases and shipyards that could shrink if planes and ships are removed.
The defense official said that the proposed increased budget wasn’t intended to increase the size of the US military, but rather to help modernize it to compete with Russia and China.
Many of the department’s programs, even if they don’t specifically apply to Russia or China, address the challenges posed by both countries, the official noted. That includes investments like space, cyber and the industrial base.
“The growth in the top line is not about making the force bigger,” the official said. “It’s about modernizing the force to compete with our near-peer adversaries.”
Still, the proposed budget includes $6.1 billion in funding for Pacific deterrence, including to bolster the defense of Guam and for new missile warning and tracking architecture.
The Pentagon said that its budget “prioritizes China as the preeminent pacing challenge while developing capabilities and operational concepts in the Indo-Pacific.”
Inflation posed its own challenge to the Defense Department budget, even as the request was finalized before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent fuel prices soaring.
“We did the best that we could given that at some point you have to snap the chalk line and finish with what you know at that time,” said the official. “Inflation going forward, based on Russia’s impact of Ukraine spiking fuel prices — that’s a new variable that will have to be addressed.”
Largest budget for research and procurement
With an emphasis on modernizing the military, the budget request includes the largest ever investment in procurement, research and development at $276 billion.
The Defense Department’s focus on building “integrated deterrence” requires modernizing the military across all of the domains of warfare: air, land, sea, cyber and space. The budget requests $56.6 billion for the purchase of F-35 and F-15EX fighter jets while the military develops the B-21 bomber planes and drones.
At sea, the budget requests $40.8 billion for the construction of eight battle force fleet ships, including nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. The budget request also has $12.6 billion to modernize Army and Marine Corps combat equipment.
Beyond the battlefield, the budget request includes $479 million to implement the recommendations of the Pentagon’s independent review commission on sexual assault, one of the top priorities for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin when he came into the position.
The budget also would provide a 4.6% pay raise for both military and civilian employees, which the administration touted as the largest pay raise in two decades.
And it expands the department’s commitment to prepare for climate change, including a $3.1 billion request for investments designed to “lay the groundwork for a more capable future force.”
The budget requested also included a $1 billion flexible fund to manage the response to the fuel leak at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii. Austin announced in early March that he had made the decision to close the facility after a petroleum leak contaminated the water. About a million people rely on the facility for water.
The official described the amount as “more than a down payment,” while acknowledging the challenge in predicting exactly how much money will be needed to deal with the facility, especially with ongoing litigation.
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