WASHINGTON ― Top Pentagon leaders defended President Joe Biden’s flat defense budget request to lawmakers on Thursday along with its “hard choices” to slash legacy weapons programs in favor of developing technologies as a hedge against China.

Two weeks after the Biden administration sent Congress a fiscal 2022 budget request that seeks $715 billion in Department of Defense funds, senators from both sides of the aisle pressed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley. The duo faced tense questions over plans to forgo a Navy destroyer, four amphibious warships, MQ-9 Reaper drones and to retire 42 A-10 aircraft, among other moves.

The Biden administration wants to cut weapons that can’t stand up to China and Russia or are too costly to sustain, the officials told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In an exchange over proposed divestments of RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 drones ― which are an increasing part of the counterterror fight in Afghanistan as American troops withdraw ― Milley acknowledged the military is accepting risk, but said deterring China takes precedence.

“It has to do with relevance and pivoting to the future,” Milley told North Dakota Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer, whose state hosts the RQ-4 mission. “This budget biases the future operating environment, the change in the character of war and against the pacing threat of China. That’s not to say that we’re going to stop everything with respect to A-10s, MQ-9s or some of these systems, but we’ve got to make that turn.”

Since the budget’s release, the Biden administration has had to navigate the difficult politics of shedding weapons platforms that provide for both national security as well as the communities where they are made, based and maintained.

Panel Chairman Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., stopped short of a full-throated endorsement of the budget as-is, calling it “a starting point for Congress.” He lauded the $112 billion research, development, test, and evaluation request, as “building our strength in these areas will be critical to the modernization of our national security.”

Officials also heard Republican arguments the flat budget is insufficient to deter China and its growing military. The ranking member on the committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe, was among Republicans at the hearing who rapped the federal budget’s prioritization of domestic needs — which would get a 16 percent increase — over defense, whose growth would trail the rate of inflation.

“This budget cuts ships, aircraft, munitions and more. We have nearly $25 billion of unfunded priorities. These aren’t ‘wish lists.’ They are ‘risk lists,’ ” said Inhofe, who has called for a 3-5 percent budget increase above inflation. “The administration keeps telling us that the Pentagon budget is cut because of ‘fiscal realities,’ but they’re spending trillions of taxpayer dollars on everything else under the sun.”

Along similar lines, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, challenged Austin to explain to troops the administration’s prioritization of national security, as it was “dead last.”

“What I will tell our troops, what I have told them, and will continue to tell them ― and I truly believe ― is the president’s budget gives us the flexibility to go after the right mix of capabilities to defend the nation and deter aggression,” Austin said. “Our troops are always first, and they will always be first going forward.”

Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, a key sea power advocate, pressed Austin to reconcile the budget’s trajectory toward a 305-ship Navy with the 355-ship goal the service set in 2016.

“We have the most capable and dominant Navy in the world and it will continue to be so moving forward. When you talk about naval power, certainly size matters, but what also matters is having the right mix of capabilities in the force,” Austin said. “Our goal is to make sure we maintain a ready, sustainable force in the future.”

When Austin conceded that 355 ships “is a good goal to shoot at,” Wicker fired back: “This budget doesn’t get us anywhere near back on the path to do that.”

Meanwhile, Reed and a range of lawmakers used the hearing to add new pushback against Biden’s formulation of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a special fund Congress established to improve the capabilities, design and posture of the joint force across the Pacific.

Lawmakers of both parties said its inclusion of big-ticket procurement items, like the F-35 fighter jet and naval vessels, did not align with a list of priorities Indo-Pacific Command had submitted to Congress.

“The PDI was intended to strengthen the presence and resiliency of our armed forces; improve logistics and maintenance capabilities; support exercises, training, experimentation and innovation for the joint force; and build the defense and security capabilities and cooperation of allies and partners,” Reed said in his opening statement.

“I am concerned that the department’s budget request takes a heavily platform-centric approach to PDI, and I look forward to working collaboratively with DoD leadership to more appropriately align resources in the DoD budget with our intent for PDI.”

Reed’s remarks overlapped with those of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who said in a floor speech Tuesday the PDI request would “cannibalize Pacific Deterrence Initiative funds intended to build infrastructure and enhance interoperability with our partners in the region just to cover shortfalls elsewhere in the budget.”

In the face of the criticism, Austin acknowledged at the hearing that the $5.1 billion PDI request had missed the mark. His staff is working with the committee to “clarify and adjust any perceived misalignments,” he said.

“A great deal of the department’s budget is invested in capabilities and activities that concentrate on deterring China,” he said, “and I’m committed to making sure that we work with the committee to get it right and answer the needs of the [INDOPACOM] commander.”

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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