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Economists generally agree that the $2 trillion-plus voted by Congress to help businesses and working people cope with the damage being wrought by the Covid-19 epidemic will prove insufficient to restart the economy and put unemployed people back to work. Many trillions more in federal spending, it is believed, will be needed to restore public services (especially the nation’s devastated health care system) and sustain the recovery we all hope will soon commence. This would seem, on the face of it, a perfect time to trim military spending and channel the savings to job-creating infrastructure projects at home. But no, while the attention of Congress and the media is focused elsewhere, the Department of Defense is undertaking its most ambitious—and dangerous—military buildup since the end of the Cold War.
To appreciate the dangers inherent in the new military buildup, it is necessary to look closely at Pentagon budget documents and the plans now being made for all-out combat against what are termed “great-power competitors,” i.e., Russia and China. The net Department of Defense budget for fiscal year 2021, released this February, is actually lower than last year’s—$705 billion as compared to $718 billion (these figures exclude funds allocated to the Energy Department for nuclear weapons fabrication and maintenance).
However, these numbers conceal a dramatic shift in priorities: The FY 2020 budget included $172 billion for “overseas contingency operations” (namely, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), while the proposed FY 2021 budget includes only $69 billion for that purpose, meaning that this year’s request includes far more for investment in new weapons and programs. And there is no mystery about how the Pentagon wants to spend that money: on advanced nuclear munitions and super-sophisticated conventional weapons capable of penetrating deep into Russian and Chinese territory.
As Deputy Secretary of State David L. Norquist explained in announcing the new budget priorities, “We are grappling with a new war fighting environment, given the re-emergence of great-power competition from Russia and China and the…rapidly changing nature of warfare.”
In place of “legacy” systems—armored vehicles and helicopters intended for counterinsurgency and other “low-intensity” operations—funds will now be allocated for what Norquist called the “high-end fight” with Russia and China. To meet this new challenge, he indicated, the Pentagon is “expanding investments in critical emerging technologies, such as hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, and autonomous platforms.”
Among the weapons systems being accorded highest priority by Norquist and other senior officials are new nuclear delivery systems and missile interceptors, along with hypersonic missiles with a range previously banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which the Trump administration abandoned last August. Large sums are also to be allocated for the rapid development of autonomous weapons systems—unmanned aircraft and ships, capable of operating independently of human oversight.
Under the proposed FY 2021 budget, Pentagon spending on nuclear arms modernization will increase by 27 percent over FY 2020, jumping from $11.6 to $14.8 billion. These funds will be used to procure the first in a new class of ballistic missile–carrying submarines and to accelerate the development of a new stealth bomber, the B-21, and a new intercontinental ballistic missile called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent. Equally large sums will be channeled through the Department of Energy for the fabrication of additional nuclear warheads for these new delivery systems. All this investment—enough, it has been calculated, to finance 300,000 beds in intensive care units, 35,000 ventilators, and the salaries of 75,000 doctors—is supposedly needed to replace aging nukes now in the stockpile and provide the president with greater “flexibility” in choosing nuclear attack options.
Spending on advanced conventional weapons is also climbing. For example, the allocation for hypersonic missiles—weapons that can fly at more than five times the speed of sound—jumps by 23 percent, from to $2.6 to $3.2 billion. These missiles will be attached to a fleet of new rocket boosters being developed by the Navy, endowing them with the range to strike high-value targets deep within Russian and Chinese territory, especially enemy airbases, missile sites, and command bunkers.
As Norquist and other Pentagon officials have made clear, the acquisition of all these new weapons accords with a new US strategy aimed at defeating “great-power competitors” in what they call the “high-end fight”—meaning a war that will pit America’s most advanced and capable forces against the equivalent forces of Russia and China. Pentagon documents clearly indicate that this fight will occur adjacent to and within Russian and Chinese territory, far from America’s shores.
The emerging strategy, dubbed multi-domain or all-domain operations, calls for every branch of the military, including space and cyber forces, to collaborate in high-intensity combat to crush Russian and Chinese defensive capabilities—typically termed anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems—and then penetrate into an enemy’s “deep space” where its critical military facilities are located. Existing US weapons are said to lack the range and ability to accomplish such demanding missions; hence, the alleged need for long-range missiles and other weapons capable of reaching far into enemy territory. “Our potential adversaries have created the A2/AD environment,” the Army’s Gen. Neil Thurgood claimed in February. “In order to move forces into that, you’ve got to create lanes of penetration. Hypersonics is a strategic weapon that does that.”
What should worry us about all this is not just the allocation of billions of dollars for high-tech weapons at a time when those funds are desperately needed to shore up America’s public health system and get people back to work, but also that Russian and Chinese leaders will fear US plans for offensive attacks on their homelands and so feel pressured to spend massive amounts on new or upgraded nuclear and non-nuclear weapons of their own. Both countries have also been testing new types of hypersonic and autonomous munitions, so any US drive to rush the deployment of such weapons will no doubt hasten similar moves by Moscow and Beijing, creating new dangers for American and allied forces.
Moreover, the new US strategy of preparing for “high-end” warfare will also force the Russians and Chinese to revise their own defense policies, possibly leading them to place greater emphasis on the early use of nuclear weapons to overcome superior US conventional forces. This, in turn, will provide justification for those in Washington who want to spend even more on advanced nuclear and nonnuclear weapons. The inevitable result: a costly arms race between the United States and both Russia and China, consuming mammoth sums at a time of widespread economic hardship, while vastly increasing the risk of accidental or inadvertent nuclear war.
At this moment, Congress is understandably preoccupied with the coronavirus crisis and in finding ways to cushion its economic impact. But it must not abrogate its responsibility to review the Pentagon budget request and to ask tough questions about the purported need for new nuclear and high-tech conventional weapons at this moment. Indeed, with the nation’s vulnerability to a crippling pandemic and its attendant economic consequences so painfully evident, this is the ideal time to reassess national priorities. The need for substantial investment in national health care, vital infrastructure, and high-quality public education could not be more self-evident, while the requirement for new nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles appears, for now, far less urgent—especially given the fact that every other country, including China and Russia, will also be dealing with the economic consequences of the pandemic for some time to come.
Surely, at this time of global crisis, approval for these new weapons systems can be delayed until the pandemic has passed and lawmakers have greater opportunity to consider the potential risks of launching a new arms race with China and Russia. We should allow time, moreover, for US, Russian, and Chinese leaders to meet and consider the adoption of multilateral restraints on hypersonic weapons and other emerging military technologies. Let us not recover from the coronavirus only to find ourselves in an even more dangerous world, one menaced by an uncontrolled arms race and persistent fear of nuclear escalation.