Russia, first in the headlines, is Pentagon’s No. 2 challenge

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WASHINGTON ― Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is dominating the news, but the Biden administration’s new defense strategy makes clear China is still the Pentagon’s top focus.

A classified version of the updated National Defense Strategy is being briefed to lawmakers to justify the Pentagon’s new $773 billion budget request for 2023, and the undersecretary of defense for policy, Colin Kahl, said in a tweet Monday night the unclassified version “will be out in the coming months.” But a public summary calls China “our most consequential strategic competitor,” while saying Russia poses “acute threats.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks and other defense officials echoed that distinction in remarks Monday, saying “the people of Ukraine are foremost in our minds” while emphasizing the People’s Republic of China’s “military, economic and technological potential to challenge the international system and our interests.”

“Russia poses an acute threat to the world order, as illustrated by its unprovoked invasion and vicious tactics,” Hicks told reporters at the defense budget rollout Monday. “Even as we confront Russia’s malign activities, the defense strategy describes how the department will act urgently to sustain and strengthen deterrence with the PRC as our most consequential strategic competitor and pacing challenge.”

To be clear, as defense officials briefed reporters Monday on the budget, they often mentioned Russia and China together. They cautioned that both continue to develop advanced capabilities, like hypersonic missiles and anti-satellite weapons, and that the Pentagon must be ready to deter them both with its own developing weaponry.

Replacing the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, the new document prioritizes homeland defense with China in mind; deterring strategic attacks against the U.S. and allies, and deterring aggression while prepared to prevail in a conflict when necessary while “prioritizing the PRC challenge in the Indo-Pacific, then the Russia challenge in Europe,” according to the summary.

North Korea, Iran and violent extremist organizations are described as “persistent threats.”

The Trump administration’s strategy, spearheaded by then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, marked a shift from principally fighting terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State toward strategic competition with authoritarian powers Russia and China. That focus has since driven defense budgets ever higher, even amid the shrinking U.S. troop presence in the Mideast and Afghanistan.

The new strategy comes as Russia shocked the globe by invading Ukraine, sparking Europe’s biggest land war since 1945. That’s galvanized western powers behind military aid for Kyiv, crippling sanctions for Moscow and lifting allied defense spending, all while the invasion has exposed deep flaws in Russia’s military.

National security officials have warned China is also engaged in its largest-ever nuclear force expansion and arsenal diversification effort in its history, that it wants to match or exceed U.S. capabilities in space and that it presents a huge cyber espionage threat to the U.S.

Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the strategy’s “carefully chosen words reflect a consciousness about the timephasing of threats and challenges.”

“China is the major challenge, and it’s a long-term, growing challenge. Russia is an immediate challenge, but quite frankly, it’s a declining power, and over time, they will become less of a threat because of economics, demographics, and they appear to overextend themselves now,” Harrison said.

“This conflict has revealed that the Russian military is not 10 feet tall,” he added. “They’ve got serious weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and coming out of this conflict they’ve got significant attrition of their capital assets and major weapon systems that they will not be able to replace anytime soon. So Russia could emerge from this conflict substantially weaker and a much smaller threat to European security than it was prior to this conflict.”

Eric Sayers, a former adviser to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and now senior vice president at Beacon Global Strategies, said the Biden strategy makes an important shift. “Trump NDS was China and Russia. This is China then Russia,” he said in a note to Defense News.

A vocal advocate for making China the Pentagon’s enduring priority, Sayers said Tuesday the administration’s request was “maturing in the right direction,” but said sea and airpower investments, amid budget proposals to scuttle ships and aircraft, are “still not growing at a level commensurate with the challenge.”

“The Pentagon seems intent on making planning for the PRC the enduring priority ahead of all other challenges, including Russia,” Sayers said. “That’s a win for those who believe the competition with the PRC is paramount both today and into the decades ahead. How this translates to resources is now the open question.”

Some defense officials justified their budgets this week in terms of the National Defense Strategy. Navy’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, Rear Adm. John Gumbleton, pointed to Russia’s recent nuclear posturing and the new U.S. strategy’s emphasis on deterring strategic attacks to highlight several of the Navy’s proposed investments: the Columbia-class submarine; its nuclear command-and-control systems, and its sub-launched ballistic missile, the Trident D5.

“When we look at the Navy-specific budget, that’s over [$8.5] billion dollars just out of the Navy side of the DoD budget request, all in that one mission set. So a very significant investment for a very real requirement,” Gumbleton said.

Asked if the budget reflected any last-minute changes based on Russia invading Ukraine, Gumbleton noted Russia is no longer considered a “near-peer” of the U.S.

“For your Navy-Marine Corps team, I would suggest that it’s agnostic. This budget gets after a near-peer competitor, of which Russia is not,” he said. “Now, they have nuclear weapons, that’s concerning. But they’re not a near-peer competitor. Your Navy-Marine Corps team, though, will be outfitted to go anywhere in the world, whether that’s near there or the South China Sea.”

Describing the new National Defense Strategy at a briefing for reporters Monday, Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord called Russia “an acute threat,” while calling China “our pacing challenge” and “our No. 1 challenge.”

Asked whether Russia is still considered a near-peer adversary, McCord demurred, noting the budget and strategy were set ahead of Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24. But he said Russia’s nuclear arsenal means it must be taken seriously.

“We did not feel that what’s happening today altered the picture that China is the No. 1 issue to keep our eye on,” McCord said. “Obviously you can draw your own conclusions about Russia’s performance on the battlefield, but all these [budget and strategy] documents were pretty much finalized some time ago. So this is not attempting to be a commentary on what’s happening last week or the week before.”

Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.



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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.