Panel: Many U.S. Defense Spending Trends Based on What’s Happening in China, Russia

February 26, 2021 12:24 PM
The launch of the Type 75 big-deck amphib in Shanghai. PLAN Photo

Questions about China’s defense spending, programs and systems – and the Pentagon’s response – dominated a Wednesday House Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing on future U.S. defense spending trends.

Thomas Mahnken, chief executive officer of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told the subcommittee that, when it comes to Beijing’s current security spending, “the majority of their spending is actually on internal security” such as police, not on weapons systems and military personnel.

Where China is spending on hardware, including fifth-generation fighters, the country is leveraging “some cost-saving in stealing intellectual property” and learning from open sources. Mahnken said China is likely spending a similar amount on these kinds of weapons compared to the U.S. military, with perhaps some lower costs where China was able to steal designs rather than pay the research and development costs themselves – but overall hardware spending tracks with American spending.

Like the United States, China’s nuclear weapons program falls under the Department of Energy. Mahnken noted China uses other agencies and departments for defense-related work, and those numbers can be obscured and therefore harder for the U.S. to quantify when looking at Chinese defense spending patterns.

Focusing on cyber as a domain important to China’s current and future defense plans, Mahnken said “they’re imposing lots of costs on us” to defend against their intrusions and possible attacks. For future American priorities, “we need to be thinking of how to do the same to them” as a means of deterrence as well as defense.

The same applies to space as a domain, where the United States has a great number of capabilities but China is making large investments in counter-space weapons to make the Pentagon spend more to defend its own capabilities.

Beijing’s choices in cyber and space are proving to be cost-effective defense spending, Mahnken said.

Todd Harrison, defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said “our adversaries don’t have better missile defenses than us.” What Russia and China have set up instead is an asymmetric competition with the United States.

The question is “how much it costs China to build ballistic, cruise, hypersonic missiles, versus how much it costs us to defend,” he said. Now, the cost “is prohibitive” to the United States to defend against those threats.

As for directed energy being an immediate cost-effective answer to air and missile defense, Harrison said it “is still a long way ahead. …This is not something we can leap ahead on,” but rather it requires a long-term commitment to develop and field these technologies.

Acknowledging China has tripled its research and development investments in recent years, Harrison said Pentagon spending in that area “is actually at historic highs.” But he and Mahnken agreed that DoD falls short in better leveraging high-tech innovation in the private sector that is applicable to security needs.

Looking at what is happening in the Pentagon’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control program – a Defense Department priority to link all its sensors with all possible shooters across platforms and domains – Harrison said it could be a “recipe for failure” rather than a joint force success.

The JADC2 effort does not have one service leading the initiative. Harrison argued that JADC2, which DoD has compared to Uber ride-sharing and driving, needs a lead service to “allow each service to plug into” a network that has shared – but well defined – requirements and protocols.

Otherwise, he warned the services would be back where they were before, with incompatible networks.

Mahnken added this was still too often the case: services going it alone where coordination is needed. “None of the services can do what is needed” in ensuring the others learn what could best cover a host of actions, even on shared problems like base defense in the United States or overseas.

The Government Accountability Office has recommended the Pentagon “set readiness metrics [and requirements] for domains, not services,” as a way to promote wise spending, but the suggestion has yielded little results so far, according to Elizabeth Field, GAO’s director of the defense capabilities and management team, who also appeared before the House subcommittee.

On the issue of long-term climate change affecting military installations, Field said GAO has discovered that the services keep records in their own ways to guide their decisions on building resiliency from shipyards and depots to garrisons.

“DoD hasn’t sent GAO a list of [the] most vulnerable installations” or a comparable list of contractors most exposed to climate change, she added. This restricts Congress’s ability to address military construction funding.

Witnesses and members agreed that “hard choices” on size and structure of the force – like what to do with legacy systems like the Air Force A-10 Warthog attack aircraft and where to spend wisely for the future – need to be made as defense budgets flatten or decrease because of the pandemic.

Noting committee members didn’t want to discuss base realignment and closure, Harrison said “that’s something DoD has got to look at.” He added he was looking at Air Force and Army excess property as a means of future savings.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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