Pentagon says Congress funding fights delay programmes to counter China

The Pentagon has estimated that its modernisation programme – considered essential to its efforts to deal with the “pacing challenge” that China poses – is four years behind due to funding debates in the US Congress.

Deputy Defence Secretary Kathleen Hicks said on Tuesday that the department faced “significant consequences” from the short-term spending bills, or continuing resolutions (CRs), used in recent years, the latest of which passed earlier this month.

“We estimate we’ve lost probably a total of about four years’ worth of progress on our modernisation efforts,” she told the Defence Writers’ Group, adding that in the “nearly 11 years that we’ve been dealing with CRs, that is a cost you can’t buy back; you just can’t buy back time”.

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Last week, US President Joe Biden signed the short-term funding bill to keep the government open and operating until early next year because Congress was unable to agree on appropriations for the fiscal 2024 budget.

“Operating under short-term continuing resolutions hamstrings the department’s people and programmes and undermines both our national security and competitiveness,” Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said at the time.

On Tuesday, Hicks elaborated about the effect CRs had on “substantial efforts we have under way to pace to China”.

The Pentagon has labelled China its “pacing challenge” and “the only competitor out there with both the intent to reshape the international order and increasingly the power to do so”.

Areas that have already been affected, Hicks said, included shipbuilding and the maintenance of the US “nuclear triad”.

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“As we look at how do we defeat Chinese efforts to keep us away from protecting our interests in [the Indo-Pacific] theatre ... and how do we deny them the ability to execute an effective kill chain, a lot of those efforts are put first forward or most substantially forward in our ‘24 budget request.”

She added: “We’re already, I do believe, about four years behind where we should be.”

More delays, she said, would result in the programmes falling “further behind”.

Hicks also discussed the Pentagon’s Replicator initiative, which aims to field “attritable autonomous systems” at scale of “multiple thousands in multiple domains” within the next 18 to 24 months – an effort explicitly to counter Beijing.

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The Defence Department, she said, understood its responsibility to build trust with Congress over programmes like Replicator and also to win support on aid to Ukraine.

“We know China is watching that,” she said.

Hicks also called Beijing “very worried” about the alliance-building by the US in the Indo Pacific – with the Philippines, South Korea and Japan, as well as through the Aukus pact with Australia and Britain.

She said that the US had been seeing “lots of really positive momentum and real gains there that we know are having deterrent value on the Chinese as they worry about what the implications could be of creating larger conflicts when ... they look to take on any one of those nations”.

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