Eyeing China, Biden Pentagon Nominee Advocates for Robust Defense Budget | Opinion

The perennial guns versus butter debate was in full bloom Tuesday, during the Senate nomination hearing for Dr. Kathleen Hicks to serve as the deputy secretary of defense—the number two position at the Pentagon. In light of growing threats from the Chinese military, the Biden administration nominee used competing questions from senators on both sides of the political aisle to emphasize the need for robust American defense spending.

In her prepared testimony, Hicks correctly called China's military modernization the "pacing challenge of our time"—a defense expert's way of saying Beijing represents the most daunting threat Americans currently confront. Her top priority, if confirmed, "would be to help translate the rhetoric of strategic competition into the reality of execution," while increasing the "speed and scale of innovation in our force."

Based on her experience as a Pentagon career civil servant and Obama administration appointee, Hicks understands that will require robust defense funding.

Therein lies the rub.

Hicks served on the bipartisan, congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy (NDS) Commission, which in 2018 warned that "[t]he security and well-being of the United States are at greater risk than at any time in decades."

Such a dire situation did not develop overnight.

Following 9/11, insufficient funding forced the Pentagon to delay vital weapons modernization programs. Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow modernized their forces, fielding cutting-edge capabilities and developing new tactics intended to overcome the United States and its allies on the battlefield.

Accordingly, American military superiority eroded, and the Pentagon confronted a dangerous readiness crisis in 2017. That year, for example, the Army's vice chief of staff warned that "our Army requires modernized equipment to win decisively, but today we are outranged, outgunned and outdated."

Surveying this situation, Hicks and her fellow NDS commissioners recommended that "Congress increase the base defense budget at an average rate of three to five percent above inflation" in the coming years.

However, she also penned a March/April 2020 Foreign Affairs article titled "Getting to Less" arguing that the Department of Defense, with some tough choices, could eventually "reduce its annual costs by some $20 billion to $30 billion."

Did Hicks change her mind, or was she simply trying to explain how the risks associated with a suboptimal potential defense budget cut could be mitigated?

On Tuesday, inquiring senators wanted to know.

In written questions before the hearing, the committee asked Hicks if she believed that "sustained real growth in the defense budget is necessary to achieve the aims of the existing NDS without incurring significant risk?"

Hicks' response? An artful dodge—just as now-Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin did during his own January 19 hearing.

So, when Hicks' nomination hearing finally started, Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma wasted no time asking her if she stood by the recommendation of 3 to 5 percent real growth for the defense budget.

Clearly expecting the question, Hicks chose her words carefully. "I think that was an accurate reflection of what it would take in a ballpark way to meet the requirements of the 2018 NDS as it was laid out," she answered. "So, I stand by that as the general rule of thumb for that document."

Hicks cautiously characterized 3 to 5 percent as a "ballpark" figure. She also tied that figure to the requirements of the Trump administration's 2018 National Defense Strategy. That leaves room for her to later justify a freeze or reduction in defense spending.

President Joe Biden in the Oval Office
President Joe Biden in the Oval Office Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

After all, as Hicks noted during the hearing, the Biden administration will produce a new National Defense Strategy, and that strategy will address changes since 2018 and include updated priorities, threat assessments and missions. Any of those changes could be used to justify a different defense budget recommendation.

At the same time, Hicks deserves some credit for her response to Inhofe. If the Biden administration is on track to freeze or reduce spending, as many expect, it would have been easier for Hicks to just to say outright that new circumstances no longer required or permitted real growth in the defense budget.

Hicks, however, did not do that.

Later in the hearing, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a leading advocate for defense budget cuts, appeared to be in damage-control mode. After citing the pandemic and domestic spending priorities, Warren pressed Hicks to say that cutting the defense budget wouldn't compromise U.S. national security.

While acknowledging the extraordinary challenges associated with the pandemic, Hicks responded to Warren that "we are a nation that can afford the defense that it needs to have."

That was a laudable response to Warren—and it was also factual. American defense spending, measured either as a percentage of gross domestic product or a percentage of federal outlays, is near post-World War II historical lows.

Perhaps that is why Hicks noted that it would "be hard to significantly squeeze the defense budget in light of the threats that we face" without, among other things, an effective partnership between the Pentagon and Congress.

That is a Pentagon version of a polite scolding for Congress. Lawmakers habitually demand that the Department cut waste and increase efficiency, but refuse to permit the Pentagon to close unnecessary bases in their home districts or retire outdated weapons systems stationed in their states.

Those steps, over time, would help provide additional resources for new capabilities that America's troops desperately need in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere.

Regardless, Warren clearly did not appreciate Hicks' response and asked the question again. Hicks reluctantly acknowledged that the top-line defense budget number could be reduced "so long as we are willing to make some decisions that may incur risk themselves."

That is hardly a ringing endorsement of a campaign to slash defense spending, and it may have raised a few eyebrows in the Biden White House.

Having successfully navigated the latest installment of the guns versus butter debate, Hicks appears set for an easy and quick Senate confirmation.

Americans who care about the growing threat from China and other adversaries should stay tuned, however. If the Biden administration ignores the advice of the bipartisan commission on which Hicks served and nonetheless proposes a reduction in defense spending, Americans and their representatives in Washington should demand answers.

What threats have dissipated since 2018? Hasn't the threat from China only grown since then? What about the threat from Russia? What missions will the U.S. military no longer conduct? And what additional risks are we taking?

Honest answers to those questions will make clear that a failure to maintain robust defense spending in the coming years will invite aggression from Beijing and put Americans and our interests in increasing danger.

Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.