Details emerging from the 2022 military budgeting process suggest that the United States will refocus from the Middle East toward China and other perceived emerging threats.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) made the government’s intended strategic shift explicit during a Brookings Institution webinar previewing the committee’s Sept. 1 markup of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)—the annual congressional allotment to the Department of Defense and related agencies.
“Where [HASC ranking member] Mike Rogers and I are 100 percent in agreement [is] that we need to transform our national security,” Smith said during the webinar. “We’re pivoting away from that direct-forward military engagement and combat zones—and that’s a fundamental shift.”
Smith said his proposal has a long way to go, with more than 700 amendments being added and set to be considered since the 2022 NDAA was unveiled. But in its current stage, the bill contains numerous provisions that would boost resources for potential conflicts with China and Russia, as well as others that provide for an influx of funding for research and development in artificial intelligence and other advanced technology.
Those provisions include congressional policy declarations supporting Taiwan and a “free and open Indo-Pacific region,” as well as billions of dollars in funding to support those goals.
In total, Smith’s proposal authorizes roughly $744 billion in discretionary defense spending, an uptick from the estimated $733 billion being spent this year and the $714 billion in 2020. Nevertheless, the Biden administration has requested $753 billion from Congress, with much of the increase intended to help launch an estimated $1.7 trillion nuclear weapons modernization program planned for the next decade.
The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved an even more ambitious version of the 2022 NDAA in July, proposing a nearly $780 billion budget. That proposal has been sent to the Senate floor.
Smith said he’s focused less on the funding levels for the military, and more on how that money will be spent. He rejected criticisms from some of his Democratic colleagues that the military budget should be diverted toward social programs, climate change, and other areas.
“I don’t support the argument that ‘oh my gosh, we can’t spend another $25 billion because we have all these other priorities.’ We’ve spent a lot of money on those other priorities,” Smith said, referencing the roughly $6 trillion in stimulus injected into the economy over the last year-plus.
However, Smith did lament the waste and corruption he said has proliferated through the defense industry since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He said neoconservative policymakers—particularly those involved in the Project for a New American Century—steered the U.S. military toward global domination, rather than scaling back after the Cold War ended.
The Project for a New American Century “was one of the dumbest damn things that has ever been put forth,” Smith said. “The idea that the key to success is that the U.S. had to remain as dominant over the next 100 years as it was during the Cold War.
“This led us to a whole series of bad decisions.”
Smith appeared to be referencing the recent wars in the Middle East.
One of the funding proposals Smith expressed skepticism about was the $1.7 trillion (over 10 years) nuclear arms modernization project. For 2022, the Biden White House has requested $15 million for the development of new low-yield nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles; nearly $134 million for the development of a new high yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead; and nearly $1.9 billion to have the capability to produce at least 80 plutonium pits for nuclear warheads per year at two sites.
Even with China building its nuclear capacity, the United States doesn’t necessarily need to follow suit, he said.
“They [China] still have less than 300 nukes. How many do you need, regardless of how many your adversary has?” Smith said. “You don’t need as many nuclear weapons to be an adequate deterrent as many people say—because, well, they’re nuclear weapons.
“Do we need 5,000k nukes, or is there a more cost-effective way to deter?”
Smith’s skepticism extended to the notion that the United States needs to dramatically increase research and development in missile defense systems.
“Missile defense—it has limited ability to truly stop incoming missiles,” he said. “You can stop a few, but stopping a few dozen is another matter—let alone a few hundred.”
Despite what appears to be a significant military spending boost coming down the pipeline, critics of the Biden administration have voiced concerns that the decision to abandon Americans in Afghanistan will incentivize China and Russia to pursue expansionist policies. Smith was asked at the Brookings Institute event whether those rivals might “test the waters” with an invasion of Taiwan or Ukraine.
“Let’s think our way beyond the bumper-sticker thought,” Smith said. “The idea that people won’t think we’re resolute because we don’t stay in Afghanistan another 20 years—it’s not that simple.”