Biden Administration Seeks $715B Pentagon Budget; Calls for Investment in SSN(X), Shedding Legacy Platforms

April 9, 2021 2:28 PM - Updated: April 9, 2021 4:40 PM

This post has been updated to include a statement from Republican senators about the Biden administration’s request and comments from Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.

The Biden administration is requesting a $715 billion budget for the Pentagon, keeping defense spending largely flat when adjusting for inflation, the White House announced today.

In a summary of the forthcoming Fiscal Year 2022 budget submission, the administration lays out its priorities for the Pentagon, which include shedding legacy platforms and pursuing the Navy’s new SSN(X) program.

“Maintaining U.S. naval power is critical to reassuring allies and signaling U.S. resolve to potential adversaries. The discretionary request proposes executable and responsible investments in the U.S. Navy fleet,” the summary says of Navy shipbuilding. “In addition, the discretionary request continues the recapitalization of the Nation’s strategic ballistic missile submarine fleet, and invests in remotely operated and autonomous systems and the next-generation attack submarine program.”

While the Pentagon top line in the Biden submission is $715 billion, the total defense spending request is $753 billion, which includes funding for the Department of Energy for developing and maintaining nuclear weapons, as well as money for the Maritime Administration.

The Pentagon’s enacted spending for FY 2021 is $704.5 billion, with total defense spending for the current fiscal year at $731.6 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The summary also alludes to cuts to legacy platforms that the administration argues are not providing a return on investment.

“The discretionary request supports DOD’s plan to divest legacy systems and programs to redirect resources from low- to high-priority programs, platforms, and systems,” the summary reads.

“Some legacy force structure is too costly to maintain and operate, and no longer provides the capabilities needed to address national security challenges,” it continues. “The discretionary request enables DOD to reinvest savings associated with divestitures and other efficiencies to higher priority investments.”

The summary doesn’t address specific Navy programs that could see cuts in favor of modernization. However, the service is having trouble with extending the lives of its aging Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser fleet and in the past has sought to shed the hulls.

The summary shows the Biden administration is continuing down the path of the previous administration in focusing on China, which the White House says is the “top challenge” for the Pentagon. The proposal would see the Defense Department continuing the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which Congress created last year at the request of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. Phil Davidson. The combatant command’s investment priorities, detailed in a recent request to Congress, call for $4.68 billion for the PDI in FY 2022.

“The Department would also seek to deter destabilizing behavior by Russia. Leveraging the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and working together with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, DOD would ensure that the United States builds the concepts, capabilities, and posture necessary to meet these challenges,” according to the summary.

The Biden proposal also seeks to abolish the Oversea Contingency Operations account, which has been used to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Getting rid of OCO is “a significant budgetary reform” that would see the Pentagon “instead funding direct war costs and enduring operations in the DOD base budget,” according to the summary.

The Trump administration had planned for a $722 billion defense top line for the FY 2022 request, which included a considerable boost to the shipbuilding account. But the Biden administration in February initiated a “relook” at the FY 2022 defense budget, with shipbuilding topping the list of what it planned to reevaluate.

USNI News reported last month that the Pentagon was mulling a reduction to the aircraft carrier force as part of the budget review.

Previous reports said the Pentagon would likely see a top line between $704 billion and $708 billion.

Defense officials have repeatedly warned of flattening or declining defense budgets and said the services need to find ways to adjust their investments to account for this while maintaining modernization and readiness priorities. The Marine Corps – in advocating for its force design changes that include cuts to legacy systems – has said its plans assume it will not receive a boost in funding.

Still, a spending fight over defense is likely looming in Congress. In a letter last month to President Joe Biden, 50 Democratic members of Congress called for a decreased Defense Department budget. But lawmakers from both Maine and Mississippi – two states with shipyards that build vessels for the Navy – sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Deputy Defense Secretary Kath Hicks that same week pushing for a “robust” request for the FY 2022 shipbuilding account.

Lawmakers in both parties and Pentagon officials have advocated for a three- to five-percent increase in defense spending so DoD can continue adjusting to a strategy focused on conflict with countries like Russia and China.

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), in a statement following USNI News’ report about a potential cut to the carrier force, argued for a boost in defense spending.

“Now is not the time to cut defense spending. Our defense budget should grow at 3 to 5 percent above inflation to counter an increasingly threatening China,” Luria said at the time. “One cannot place a value on the unparalleled power projection and deterrence provided by our fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and their embarked air wings. I urge the Biden administration to immediately drop this from consideration.”

Several Republican senators – including Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) – in a statement issued after the budget summary rollout criticized the Biden administration’s defense proposal, saying it’s not enough for the military to keep up with China.

“President Biden’s budget proposal cuts defense spending, sending a terrible signal not only to our adversaries in Beijing and Moscow, but also to our allies and partners,” the senators wrote. “Cutting America’s defense budget completely undermines Washington Democrats’ tough talk on China and calls into question the administration’s willingness to confront the Chinese Communist Party.”

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, also signed onto the statement, along with Senate Budget Committee ranking member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

While the proposal is a cut from where the Trump administration said it wanted to go for FY 2022 defense spending, the Biden administration’s request is relatively flat compared to the enacted levels for the current fiscal year.

Speaking to reporters in a Pentagon briefing today, spokesman John Kirby emphasized Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s commitment to the Navy.

“The secretary believes that our Navy remains the most powerful Navy in the world, and under his leadership he wants it to stay that way,” Kirby said. “And that means, and you’ve heard the secretary talk about this, making sure in the maritime domain our Navy has a proper mix of capabilities across the spectrum to defend this country at sea.”

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne is a reporter for USNI News. She previously covered the Navy for Inside Defense and reported on politics for The Hill.
Follow @MalShelbourne

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