Newly-recruited soldiers who set off for military camps arrive at a high-speed railway station on March 22, 2022 in Huai'an, Jiangsu Province of China

Newly-recruited soldiers who set off for military camps arrive at a high-speed railway station on March 22, 2022 in Huai'an, Jiangsu Province of China Zhao Qirui/VCG via Getty Images

Biden’s $773B Request for Pentagon Stays Focused on China

As war rages in Europe, 2023 budget proposal continues the military’s shift from ground combat to high-tech weapons.

The Biden administration’s 2023 budget request remains focused on China, according to the $773 billion spending proposal sent to Congress on Monday.  

U.S. officials called China a bigger long-term concern than Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine has led NATO members to deploy forces and enlarge spending plans. The U.S. proposal continues the military’s push toward a new generation of weapons and away from the arms that it relied upon over the two decades of counterterrorism and counter-insurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“China is the pacing challenge and the budget's going to reflect that,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said, in a briefing with reporters on Friday. “That challenge is getting greater over time, not less.”

By comparison, Kendall called Russia “an acute concern.”

The administration’s plan is already facing criticism from Republicans who have called on President Joe Biden to increase defense spending by 5 percent above inflation.

“Senate Republicans have long said the obvious: our next defense budget needs to provide for real increases in readiness and security in the face of soaring inflation,” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said in a statement. “But this budget does not even uphold that modest standard.”

Biden’s request is 8 percent more than the administration requested last year, but Congress added tens of billions of dollars and finally approved 2022 defense appropriations of $743 billion. 

The 2023 request is $30 billion more than that, but real growth is 1.5 percent after inflation, a senior defense official said.

“This $20 billion to $30 billion is not about making the force bigger,” said the senior defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the budget before it was publicly announced. “It is about modernizing the force making it more capable to compete with our near-peer adversaries.”

The entire national security budget request is $813 billion, including $40 billion that will largely go to maintain nuclear weapons under the Energy Department’s budget.

One month into Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, the White House said in a fact sheet that it was requesting $6.9 billion “to enhance the capabilities and readiness of U.S. Forces, NATO allies, and regional partners in the face of Russian aggression.” As for the overall Pentagon funding request, it says: “To sustain and strengthen deterrence, the Budget prioritizes China as the Department’s pacing challenge.” 

Under pressure from Congress, Biden also requested $400 million for the “Countering the People’s Republic of China Malign Influence Fund,” which is $100 million more than the yearly allocation given in the Senate-passed version, which is still awaiting reconciliation with the House.

The $130 billion research-and-development request is the largest ever, according to defense officials. It seeks to boost research into hypersonic weapons ($4.7 billion), microelectronics and 5G wireless ($3.3 billion), and biotechnology ($1.3 billion). 

“When I look at what we've done, I think we have a very reasonable balance here,” Kendall said. “We're meeting the needs of combat commanders, we're fighting forces that have adequate readiness, but we're also making investments in the future.”

The budget calls for retiring 150 Air Force planes and more than one dozen Navy ships to free up money to buy new weapons. In a sign of the Pentagon’s shift away from ground wars the Air Force wants to cut its planned buy of HH-60W Jolly Green II search-and-rescue helicopters–a variant of the Black Hawk meant to replace older Pave Hawk rescue helicopters–from 113 to 75 aircraft, the last of which would be purchased in 2023. The Air Force has also proposed sending 100 of its 300-plus MQ-9 Reaper drones to “another government organization,” Kendall said. The Department of Homeland Security and NASA also fly unarmed reapers. The CIA is also believed to fly the drone.

With the proposed savings, the Air Force is increasing its purchase of stealthy, long-range cruise missiles. The Pentagon also wants to spend nearly $900 million on missile defenses for Guam, home of U.S. military superbase.

Many budget watchers and Biden critics had predicted that the administration would flatten defense spending after hefty increases during the Trump administration. Last year, Pentagon budget documents projected the 2023 spending request at $731 billion, nearly 6 percent less than the actual 2023 proposal.

Since then, inflation has skyrocketed. Defense Secretary Lloyd Asustin successfully lobbied the White House for an additional tens of billions of dollars to coveraccount for higher salaries and increases in weapons costs due to supply chain problems stemming from the pandemic, a senior defense official said.

“The president was persuaded by the secretary's arguments and agreed to give us this funding,” the official said. “So we're very happy with how this came out.”

The request includes a 4.5 percent pay raise for both military and non-uniformed employees, 2 percent higher than planned last year. In all, pay raises and increased housing allowances total about $6 billion increase over 2022, according to a senior defense official.

The budget request also included funding for nine Navy ships, fewer than the number requested to retire. The Navy has long said it needs 355 ships—today it has 298.

“We are looking for a more sophisticated and nuanced way to understand naval force efficiency,” a second senior defense official said. “Ship count is important, but it is not the only metric.”

For example, officials are considering how much firepower is on each ship and how many aircraft sorties planes can fly, the official said.

U.S. planners “really looked across a much wider spectrum of factors to understand how the Navy is actually going to perform versus how many ships are in the water,” the official said.

The Army has backed off its goal of 485,000 soldiers, as it has had trouble filling the jobs—just like the country, which has more job openings than unemployed Americans.

“Rather than chase a number by dropping quality or otherwise tying up resources, something that wasn't likely to happen, they reinvested those funds elsewhere, primarily in their reserve component side,” the first senior defense official said.

Asked if there was an expectation that the future budgets would flatten or grow, the senior defense official said: “I really think that there's an opportunity [that] we can be turning the corner here and get more reasonable growth and more predictability and more bipartisan support.”

Service-by-service breakdown:

  • Army: $177.3 billion
  • Navy/Marine Corps: $230.9 billion
  • Air Force/Space Force: $234.1 billion*
  • Defense Wide: $130.7 billion

* $40 billion of the Air Force budget is classified spending that is passed to other government agencies.