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Politics

Pacific deterrence budget creates rift between Biden and Congress

Lawmakers say defending Guam from Chinese missiles is key, not jets and ships

A U.S. MH-60R Seahawk helicopter takes off from the flight deck of the USS Shiloh guided-missile cruiser in the Philippine Sea. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Joe Biden's budget request for a fund aimed at deterring China in the Indo-Pacific has come under fire from lawmakers arguing that his administration's priorities are off target.

The friction with Congress -- including some members of Biden's own Democratic Party -- over the Pacific Deterrence Initiative underscores confusion in the administration over how to handle the Pentagon's pivot to China.

The program was set up earlier this year to fund base infrastructure and joint exercises with allies to ensure American forces can avoid and counter Chinese attacks.

Among the biggest complaints about the fiscal 2022 budget request for the initiative is a dearth of funding for missile defense in Guam, the program's top priority.

Building an Aegis Ashore facility on Guam would relieve three guided-missile destroyers of missile defense work and make them available for other naval operations, the then-head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip Davidson, had said in March.

The Biden administration's fiscal 2022 budget, released in late May, requests almost $5.1 billion for the PDI. This includes nearly $120 million for missile defense in Guam -- far less than what was requested by the Indo-Pacific Command.

Highly accurate missiles are a key piece of China's "anti-access/area denial" strategy, which aims to keep American forces away from the area within the "second island chain," including southeastern Japan and Guam. The latter is seen as a likely target in the event of a conflict.

After the defense budget is released, the military services send "unfunded priorities lists" to Congress in hopes of giving a second chance to policies that did not make it in. A list obtained by Nikkei calls for an additional roughly $230 million for Guam missile defense. This means that the overall amount for this area in Biden's budget was only around a third of the total sought by the Indo-Pacific Command.

A bipartisan group of 15 House members has indicated that the PDI-related budget request should be modified in Congress.

Toward this end, "we express our strong support for the full funding of $4.68 billion of collective initiatives outlined by former Admiral Davidson," they told Defense Appropriations Subcommittee leaders in a letter this month, pushing for Guam missile defense and other priorities.

The amount of funding earmarked in the PDI budget request for developing and buying fighter jets and warships has come under fire as well, as these were not supposed to be a major area of investment for the Pacific fund.

"As one example, it doesn't matter how many F-35s the military buys if very few are stationed in the region, their primary bases have little defense against Chinese missiles, they don't have secondary airfields to operate from, they can't access prepositioned stocks of fuel and munitions, or they can't be repaired in theater and get back in the fight when it counts," Democratic Sen. Jack Reed and Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe wrote in a May 2020 commentary on national security website War on the Rocks. They were a driving force behind the creation of the PDI.

In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this month, Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin why the "vast majority of funding identified to support" the PDI is "unrelated" to an assessment of its needs by the Indo-Pacific Command. She pointed to a Navy destroyer and items related to the F-35 as examples of this gap in priorities.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies on the Pentagon's budget request at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in Washington on June 17.   © Reuters

"Senator, let me say off the top that our intent was to align our PDI investment with congressional intent," Austin replied, adding that his staff was working with the committee to clarify and adjust "any perceived misalignments" -- essentially conceding the point.

The confusion over the PDI shows that there is still debate over "how to deal with the China military challenge," even as the question of whether Beijing is a priority has been settled, said Elbridge Colby, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development under Trump.

Colby pointed to questions yet to be settled that include the specific roles of different services -- whether the Army should be involved or the focus should be on the Air Force and Navy, for example.

The Pentagon urgently needs to work out these specifics. Concerns are rising about the risk of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, with Adm. John Aquilino -- only weeks away from taking the helm of the Indo-Pacific Command -- saying in March that he believed "this problem is much closer to us than most think."

Eric Sayers, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, questioned Austin's experience in leading the pivot to the Indo-Pacific, given that his military career was largely spent outside the region, in the Middle East.

"It's a bit telling, just given his lack of focus, in his career, on the Pacific theater," Sayers said.

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