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Austin wants to pivot to China.  But can he pay for it?

But while it looks like the United States won’t be leaving the Middle East anytime soon, senior military officials are looking to keep Austin at their word on moving resources to the Pacific. Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, threw the first marker this week, flying from his headquarters in Hawaii to Washington to inform senior Pentagon officials of his intention to ask Congress for nearly $ 5 billion next year to help counter China. in the region, including money for new missile defense systems. Davidson is required by law to submit a wish list, and this year’s number is double the amount that was allocated last year.

“The greatest danger we face in the Indo-Pacific region is the erosion of conventional deterrence against China. Without a valid and compelling conventional deterrent, China will be emboldened, ”Davidson said in an appearance at a conference in Washington on Monday. “We have to convince Beijing that the costs of achieving its goals with military force are just too high.”

Davidson’s briefings received “positive feedback” from top Pentagon officials, according to a defense official. In addition to briefing Austin and Assistant Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, Davidson met with other senior officials and the new China task force, the person said.

Congress will ultimately determine the funding for the construction of the Pentagon in Asia. Lawmakers, who have called for a stronger military presence in the region to deter China, like what they are seeing so far.

Yet at least one high-level lawmaker is wary of massive build-up in the region.

Home Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Who co-sponsored the new Pacific Deterrence Initiative that aims to deter China, said he was not yet sure whether Davidson’s request was the correct answer to the problem, or how it would be reflected in its annual Panel Defense Policy Bill. Smith, who has been skeptical of major increases in defense spending and plans to expand the military, said he feared the United States would pursue a strategy that seeks “to build an army large enough to dominate. ” China.

“What I want us to focus on is deterrence. How can we have sufficient capabilities to deter China from invading Taiwan, from pushing back the territorial borders with its neighbors, from blocking sea lanes to somehow intimidate their path to a greater world power ?? ”Smith said in an interview Wednesday. “So I’ll take a look at Adm. Davidson’s request, but it’s through that lens. No domination. Deterrence.”

“How you spend money is much more important than how much you have,” Smith added. “I don’t accept the premise that we need to spend more money on the military to adequately deter China.”

Money for missile defense

Davidson submitted the request – a wishlist totaling $ 4.7 billion for fiscal 2022, and an additional $ 22.8 billion over the next five years – to Congress on Monday and will appear before the Armed Services Commission of the Senate Tuesday.

Whether this shift of resources to the Pacific is reflected in the budget request in early May is a key question as national security officials and lawmakers strive to balance a more aggressive Beijing with lingering threats. in the Middle East and other Pentagon priorities such as weapons modernization.

As budgets are expected to remain stable after years of growth under the Trump administration, Davidson’s demand – more than double the $ 2.2 billion Congress allocated last year for the Pacific region – would oblige the Pentagon to compromise on other major programs.

Like his predecessors, Austin will be challenged to turn doctrinal change into increased resources in the region. Elbridge Colby, a former defense official in the Trump administration, noted that so far the Biden administration has signaled that it has no intention of taking limited resources from the Middle East, from Afghanistan or Europe. At the same time, he wants to add new missions to the Pentagon’s already full plate, for example to fight pandemics and climate change.

“The focus on China and the modernization of the force is right. But the key to getting there are tough choices, ”Colby said.

Todd Harrison, an expert from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, pointed to the realities of the Pentagon’s awkward budget process, noting that the administration is unlikely to make major cuts to acquisition programs during its first year.

“Too much of the defense budget is tied to things that cannot easily be changed in a single year, such as major elements of the force and personnel structure,” said Harrison. “I doubt we’ll see any major cuts to acquisition programs in this first budget request, but you never know. We might be surprised.

Big budget scrub

Austin’s team at the Pentagon is figuring out which programs will get a boost and which could see cuts, before submitting their finalized plan to Congress as part of the president’s overall budget request in May. . As part of this process, the Austin team will also look into Indo-Pacom’s request.

Indo-Pacom and Pentagon leaders may want to step up forces in the Pacific to reassure regional allies and deter future conflict with China, but the department’s budget analysts at the costing office and program evaluation calls for caution, said a former defense official with knowledge of the discussions.

In particular, there is some disagreement over the requested improvements to Guam’s air and missile defense, the person said. The order requests $ 350 million for FY2022 and an additional $ 1.3 billion for FY2023-27 to introduce the Aegis Ashore ground system developed by Lockheed Martin, according to Davidson’s wishlist. However, others argue that Guam can be adequately defended with destroyers equipped with ballistic missile defense capability and that a new missile defense system is not needed.

The request reflects the Pentagon’s expectation of a Regional build-up of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the Western Pacific after former President Donald Trump withdrew from a long-standing arms treaty with Russia designed to limit such weapons.

The Pentagon recently expressed concern over China’s rapid build-up of ballistic missiles and nuclear arsenal, estimating Beijing’s stockpile of nuclear warheads will at least double to more than 400 over the next decade.

Despite possible disagreements, the Austin team has previously signaled that major programs may be cut in order to shift resources to counter China. Last month, the Pentagon ordered a review of several of its most expensive programs, from the F-35 fighter to warships and nuclear weapons. As part of the assessment, which was led by Austin’s deputy and renowned Chinese expert Hicks, the Pentagon will also examine the resources allocated to the US central command in the Middle East.

As part of the budget process, Pentagon officials are also considering downsizing the military to free up resources for Indo-Pacom, another former defense official familiar with the talks said.

Positive reception on the hill

Beyond Smith’s questions, other prominent lawmakers have welcomed Davidson’s request.

Senior Senate Armed Services Committee Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said Davidson’s plan gives lawmakers “a roadmap of the capabilities needed to maintain deterrence in the Indo-Pacific and successfully launch the Pacific Deterrence Initiative “. Inhofe co-sponsored the program last year alongside current President Jack Reed (DR.I.).

“Compared to our total federal budget, this is a small investment in programs with the best value for money to deter China, regain our regional advantage and avoid war in the Pacific,” Inhofe said in a statement to POLITICO. “Now Congress and the DOD must ensure that the IDP has the resources to fulfill its purpose.”

Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) Said she was “encouraged” to see the command articulate a “forward-looking strategy”.

“If we plan to meet this challenge, we must prioritize our investments and ensure that we support a multidimensional approach that takes into account the realities of the situation – including the long overdue needs to prioritize key areas such as strengthening our alliances and partnerships in the region and consolidate our logistics networks and support. “

But it’s not yet clear whether the Biden administration can really pivot from the Middle East, which has trapped U.S. presidents for decades. Although Biden has led a review of U.S. troop deployments around the world, there is no indication so far that he is considering withdrawing U.S. forces from the ongoing conflicts there, from Afghanistan to Iraq and to Syria.

“You think of our other security commitments across multiple theaters. So not just at Pacom now, but in Europe and elsewhere,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) Said on Tuesday at A Chinese Falcon. an armed services hearing. “I am concerned that we are running out of resources to meet our various commitments at the same time.”

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