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Restraint in Short Supply in the Pentagon Budget

The Senate mark-up hearing saw the military prioritizing aggressive turns towards Russia and China.
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Last Thursday, the Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Joseph Dunford testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). The topic? The President’s defense budget request for next year.

The nearly three-hour hearing covered everything from the fight against ISIS in Syria to NASA’s research and development projects. But what was remarkable, other than senators using valuable time with Secretary Carter to broker pet projects, was the evident reevaluation of threats to the U.S.

As Secretary Carter stated in his opening remarks,

Today’s security environment is dramatically different than the last 25 years, requiring new ways of investing and operating. Five evolving security challenges, namely Russia, China, North Kora, Iran, and terrorism are now driving the DOD’s planning and budgeting.

While Secretary Carter spent a few minutes outlining what it would take to deal ISIS a “lasting defeat,” he primarily focused on Russia and China as emerging peer competitors. He termed it as “a return, in some ways, to great power competition.” After over a decade of counterterrorism operations in the Middle East, it seems that the Department of Defense is reprioritizing state-level conflicts.

We must and will be prepared for a high-end enemy, what we call full spectrum. In this context, Russia and China are our most stressing competitors as they’ve both developed and continue to advance military systems that seek to threaten our advantages in specific areas. We see it in the South China Sea, in Crimea, and Syria as well.

Realists will appreciate the demotion of counterterrorism and the elevation of competitor states that could threaten America’s place in the power structure. But for those realists who are also advocates of restraint or offshore balancing, this is where the good news ends.

The DoD’s plan to counter Russian aggression involves an investment of $3.4 billion in FY2017 alone under the European Reassurance Initiative. This request more than quadruples last year’s request for $789 million. The initiative funds a smattering of capabilities: increased troop presence in Europe, maritime patrol aircraft operating from Greenland to Norway, and a delivery of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to the United Kingdom, as well as training and joint exercises between the U.S. and various NATO members.

This initiative, if nothing else, reinforces the idea that America is the policeman of the world and that the Obama administration has no intention of giving up the title. The 2017 Defense Posture Statement issued by the DoD earlier this month discusses their approach to deterring Russian aggression, and starts with a disclaimer: “To be clear, the United States does not seek a cold, let alone hot war with Russia. We do not seek to make Russia an enemy, even as it may view us that way.”

Any strategy that requires a disclaimer of peace before announcing it to the world is probably not a very good plan. Russia will likely interpret this drastic increase of equipment and troop presence in Europe as aggression, which in turn will increase tensions and make diplomacy more difficult in a time when it is desperately called for.

Caroline Dorminey is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.