WASHINGTON — With limited bandwidth before the Biden administration’s first budget is due, Pentagon planners are diving deep into shaping five key modernization efforts.

According to a memo from Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, first published by Politico, the Biden team “will focus on a very small number of issues with direct impact on FY 2022” in the few weeks it has to impact the next budget, which is expected to be released in early May.

The programs will be judged against three main criteria:

  • If the investments deter aggression in the Pacific (likely by China).
  • Whether there are options for accelerating the development of autonomous systems.
  • What near-term options exist for getting rid of older systems.

The five areas under review are:

Shipbuilding additions laid out by the Trump administration’s fiscal 2022 plan. President Donald Trump was eyeing a major increase in shipbuilding, relying heavily on development of new autonomous ships. In her confirmation hearing, Hicks indicated an openness to that idea, but was skeptical about the work that went into developing the plan.

“There’s some really interesting operational themes that I’m attracted to: There’s a focus on increasing use of autonomy, there’s a focus on dispersal of forces and there’s a focus on growing the number of small surface combatants relative to today,” Hicks said. “But there are some things in that unclassified report, as I mentioned to you, that I saw as flags. There’s an indication that the information in there would require further analysis to validate the numbers.”

The nuclear enterprise, which received a major focus increase under the Trump administration and saw the creation of two low-yield nuclear warheads. While it is unlikely the Biden administration would remove the low-yield W76-2 from service (it was first deployed in late 2019), future warhead developments could be paused or curtailed. There is also a major fight brewing about the future of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, the replacement for the legacy Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile.

During their respective confirmation hearings, both Hicks and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin showed support for the nuclear triad and overall modernization of the nuclear arsenal, but they both stopped short of offering support for GBSD or other specific programs.

The F-35 program. The famously expensive program for the Defense Department provides the long-term fighter aviation backbone for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The program is nearing the point where a series of upgrades are expected to receive funding, and the Air Force has openly talked over the last year about what new design might come next.

Long-range fires, which was seen as a priority for the Pacific theater under the Trump administration. Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has laid out a vision for each service to have its own deep-strike capability.

The KC-46A tanker and MQ-9 Reaper drone. The two Air Force programs are also getting special attention. The KC-46 has been plagued by technical issues, but Air Force officials announced Feb. 24 that the service will use the aircraft in limited areas as a supplemental capability while those issues are sorted out. Meanwhile, the service had planned to stop buying the MQ-9, but Congress swooped in to save the program in December.

During her Feb. 8 confirmation hearing, Hicks told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that she is concerned about the budget schedule, in large part because of what she described as political appointees from the Trump administration refusing to cooperate with the Biden transition team.

“I think the biggest challenge that I will face, if confirmed, because of this is around budget transparency,” she said then. “Typically that information is shared with the transition team because the administration will owe to Congress a president’s budget submission in the spring.

“So the inability to look at that information … I think it will cause some delay in the timeline by which we can give budget quality information back to Congress. So that would be the area [where] I would ask for a little relief or understanding.”

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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