Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin listens to a question as he speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Feb. 19, 2021.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin listens to a question as he speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Feb. 19, 2021. AP / Alex Brandon

Analysis: Here’s What to Look For in Biden’s First Pentagon Budget Request

DOD likely to face fight from Congress on plans to divest older weapons.

On Friday, 129 days after moving into the White House, President Joe Biden is expected to send a $6 trillion fiscal 2022 spending plan to Congress.

By the calendar, it will be the latest annual spending request submitted by a presidential administration in at least 100 years. 

While many of the details of the plan remain under wraps, at least for now, several major shifts have already leaked, and top Pentagon officials have been talking up major themes since early April, when the White House announced the Pentagon share of the budget totals $715 billion.

“I believe our budget request will help us match our resources to strategy, strategy to policy, and policy to the will of the American people,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee Thursday. “Informed by the President's interim national security guidance and my own message to the force, it finds the right mix of capabilities that we need most to defend this nation now and in the future.”

An administration’s first budget proposal typically does not include major spending shifts; the plan sent to Congress was assembled largely by the prior administration. The Biden administration’s next budget request for fiscal 2023 is expected to be influenced by the Pentagon’s ongoing Global Posture Review. But the Trump administration in December released budget planning documents that laid out a plan to increase the size of the Navy while making significant cuts to the Army and Air Force, in an effort to counter China’s military growth. While Biden’s plan is expected to have some differences, countering China is expected to remain a top priority, along with an increased investment in game-changing technology.

“It invests in hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, micro electronics, 5G technology, cyber capabilities, shipbuilding, climate change resilience, and nuclear modern modernization to name a few,” Austin said.

Austin also singled out investments in cybersecurity to counter Russia, as well as missile defense funding to counter North Korea and Iran.

Biden’s Pentagon budget request totals $715 billion, which is $7 billion less than the $722 billion the Trump administration had been eying for its fiscal 2022 submissions. This year’s Pentagon budget is $704 billion, making Biden’s request a 1.4 percent increase, without accounting for inclinations.

Republicans already believe the topline is too low and want 3 to 5 percent annual increases above inflation, an bump championed by Trump administration officials even though their budget planning documents only showed a 2.6 percent increase before inflation.

“While it is a modest increase from the enacted FY21 budget, it is a significant commitment of treasure that the people of the United States have entrusted to us and we will work diligently to ensure it is spent prudently in the best interest of the nation,” Army Gen. Mark Milley, Joint Chiefs chairman, said at the same hearing. “This FY 2022 [budget] is the result of hard choices in a year in which the nation has suffered economic hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Some of Biden’s political appointees have previously backed the 3 to 5 percent annual increase. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks and Mike McCord, whom the Senate is expected to confirm as the Pentagon comptroller, were both part of a bipartisan group that in 2018 endorsed an annual 3-to-5-percent increase to the Pentagon’s budget above inflation.

But a lot has happened since that commission was formed, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to trillions of dollars spent to prop up the U.S. economy. 

The Navy is expected to request funding for eight new warships, four fewer than Trump’s Pentagon eyed in fiscal 2022. Among the cuts, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. With the focus on applying pressure on China, there will be a significant focus on ship numbers announced in Friday’s budget proposal. Recall the Trump administration wanted more than 400 crewed warships and more than 100 uncrewed ones.

Meanwhile, debate is expected over Pentagon proposals to retire older weapons to free up money for new ones.

The budget request “gives us the flexibility to divest ourselves of systems and platforms that do not adequately meet our needs, [including] older ships and aircraft and ISR platforms that demand more maintenance and upkeep and risk than we can afford,” Austin said.

Expect pushback in Congress.

“I have serious concerns regarding the DOD's plans to divest or decommission platforms that are in high demand or have much service life left in them,” Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., the ranking member of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee said at Thursday’s hearing.

In the fiscal 2022 budget request, the Air Force is expected to propose cutting 428 old fighter jets, while asking to buy 304 new ones over a five-year period beginning in 2022, according to Air Force Magazine. The Air Force wants to cut planned F-35 stealth fighter buys by 10 percent over the next five years, the publication reports.

Calvert singled out planned cuts to the MQ-9 Reaper drones and the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship. 

“Congress has made our position clear that we do not accept hope as a viable replacement,” he said.