Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked in an interview published last week whether the Chinese hypersonic weapons test this summer should be compared to Sputnik—referring to the 1957 satellite launch by the Soviet Union that shocked Americans regarding the Kremlin’s military-technology prowess. Hyten suggested the comparison was not a good one. “Sputnik created a sense of urgency in the United States,” Hyten said. “The [Chinese] test on July 27 did not create that sense of urgency.”
Hyten’s concerns about a lack of American urgency in responding to a growing threat from Beijing are reinforced by a Department of Defense report released on November 3 that makes clear Beijing is sprinting to field modern forces that can defeat the U.S. military. Instead of responding to this alarming news with urgent action, Washington seems to be slumbering.
Exhibit A: The Pentagon once again started the new federal government fiscal year on October 1 without the annual defense authorization and appropriation that helps America’s service members defend our country.
If the United States hopes to field the modern and capable military forces urgently needed to deter and defeat aggression from the rapidly improving People’s Liberation Army (PLA), there is no time to waste. Unfortunately, wasting valuable time is exactly the effect of tardy defense authorizations and appropriations.
To understand the intensity and urgency that Beijing is bringing to its military modernization effort, consider just a few things Americans learned in recent weeks.
On October 4 alone, 52 PLA fighter jets, bombers, and other military aircraft aggressively entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. These increasingly common provocations follow warnings in March from the then-top U.S. commander in the Indo-Pacific, Adm. Philip Davidson, that Beijing could invade or attack Taiwan “in the next six years.”
On October 16, Americans learned that China tested an advanced new hypersonic missile this summer that circles the Earth and is designed to evade U.S. defenses and conduct a nuclear attack against the U.S. homeland.
On November 3, we learned that Beijing is expanding the size of its nuclear arsenal much faster than expected and in 2020 launched more ballistic missiles for testing and training “than the rest of the world combined.”
And on November 7, Americans learned that China built sophisticated, full-scale outlines of a U.S. aircraft carrier and two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers to practice sinking the American vessels.
To respond to these and other challenges, the Department of Defense is attempting to undertake a modernization effort not seen in a generation. But that is difficult to do without timely defense authorizations and appropriations.
When the Pentagon does not receive annual funding on time, it must instead rely on what is called a continuing resolution, or CR. A CR sounds harmless, but nothing could be further from the truth.
CRs complicate defense planning, impose costly inefficiencies, cause uncertainty in an already-strained industrial workforce, and ultimately delay getting vital equipment into the hands of the warfighter.
CRs essentially copy and paste the defense budget from the previous year. That prevents the Pentagon from starting new programs or expanding ongoing ones. This results in delayed delivery of vital new capabilities, leaving American service members on patrol in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere with antiquated American weapons and equipment while trying to stare down increasingly formidable adversaries.
Indeed, the current CR lasts through December 3, more than two months after the new fiscal year started. To make matters worse, it now appears that the CR may be extended until March of 2022, creating a six-month delay.
Consider the impact on the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force says that a six-month CR will delay 36 new programs and 36 military construction (MILCON) projects and hold up five production increases.
Some of the most concerning delays caused by a six-month CR affect our nation’s nuclear deterrent—the means by which the Department of Defense persuades adversaries they could not survive a nuclear attack on the United States.
The Air Force is responsible for both the land and air legs of the nation’s nuclear triad and for approximately 75 percent of its nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) functions. A six-month CR would stall $10.9 million in funding for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program. It would also delay $31 million in funding for a vital supporting MILCON project and would prevent production increases for much-needed modified fuses for America’s existing intercontinental ballistic missiles. The current fuses for the Minuteman III have served three times longer than planned and must be replaced to ensure safe and credible deterrence until the GBSD comes on line.
Regarding the air leg of the nuclear triad, a six-month CR would hold up six B-21 infrastructure MILCON projects. These projects include aircraft maintenance hangars as well as flight simulators and operations facilities that are needed to maintain and fly the B-21, which is anticipated to conduct its first flight next year. A new program for B-52 combat network communications would also be postponed. These delays would be a problem because both the B-21 and the B-52 are essential to deterring a nuclear attack against the United States and its allies.
Moreover, a reliable U.S. nuclear deterrent depends on more than just missiles, bombers, and submarines. It also depends on an NC3 network that knits them together, providing detection, early warning, and command and control of U.S. nuclear forces. This network consists of up to 160 individual systems, some of which are outdated and vulnerable to Russian and Chinese counter-space and cyber capabilities. Yet here, too, a six-month CR would delay $6.9 million needed to improve NC3 technology, viability, and durability, as well as $66 million for an associated MILCON project.
Unfortunately, a six-month CR would also delay key modernization efforts for the Air Force’s conventional forces. These efforts include, for example, a program to advance the open system architecture, radar, sensors, communications and other advanced technologies for the Next-Generation Air Dominance program, which seeks to develop America’s sixth-generation fighter.
While American airmen will have to wait longer for more advanced fighter capabilities thanks to the CR, the Chinese air force seems to be pressing ahead. On October 29, we learned about two new Chinese stealth fighter variants that could challenge American air superiority.
A six-month CR would also put the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Rapid Response Weapon program on hold. That’s unfortunate because this missile will provide U.S. forces a much-needed hypersonic long-range conventional air-to-surface precision-strike capability that would be essential in defeating China’s increasingly potent air defenses.
Sadly, CRs are not an anomaly. They have actually become the norm. The Department of Defense has received on-time funding only once in the last 13 fiscal years.
A report this year by the Government Accountability Office indicates that the services have responded by adapting their agreements with industry so as not to obligate funding until later in the fiscal year. If the goal is to field new capabilities as quickly as possible, self-imposed delays by Pentagon program managers actually serve to slow U.S. military modernization efforts further and conceal the full damage caused by CRs.
Some may argue that these Air Force modernization programs are unnecessary, but facts simply do not support such an assertion.
The Heritage Foundation’s 2022 Index of U.S. Military Strength assesses the overall condition of the U.S. Air Force as “weak” and predicts that it could “struggle in a war with a peer competitor.” Indeed, Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Brown testified on June 17, 2021, that the Air Force’s “aircraft fleet is 30 years old on average, and 44% are beyond their designed service life.” The Air Force’s E-3 Sentry fleet, which provides essential airborne early warning and control capabilities, is over 40 years old on average. Indeed, the aircraft’s availability rate has declined to an unacceptable 40 percent.
While ending Washington’s habitual reliance on CRs will not solve all these problems, it would be a good place to start. Beijing clearly understands there is no time to waste. To protect America’s national security interests, we should, too.
Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Maj. Lauren Harrison is a visiting military analyst. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy. Follow Bradley on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Defense Department or the Air Force.