WASHINGTON ― Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is dominating the news, but the Biden administration’s new defense strategy makes clear China is still the Pentagon’s top focus.
A classified version of the updated National Defense Strategy was briefed to lawmakers to justify the Defense Department’s new $773 billion budget request for fiscal 2023. The undersecretary of defense for policy, Colin Kahl, said in a tweet Monday night that the unclassified version “will be out in the coming months.” But a public summary calls China “our most consequential strategic competitor,” while saying Russia poses “acute threats.”
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks and other defense officials echoed that distinction in remarks Monday, saying “the people of Ukraine are foremost in our minds” while emphasizing China’s “military, economic and technological potential to challenge the international system and our interests.”
“Russia poses an acute threat to the world order, as illustrated by its unprovoked invasion and vicious tactics,” Hicks told reporters at the defense budget rollout Monday. “Even as we confront Russia’s malign activities, the defense strategy describes how the department will act urgently to sustain and strengthen deterrence with the PRC [People’s Republic of China] as our most consequential strategic competitor and pacing challenge.”
As defense officials briefed reporters on the budget, they often mentioned Russia and China together. They cautioned that both continue to develop advanced capabilities, like hypersonic missiles and anti-satellite weapons, and that the Pentagon must be ready to deter them with its own developing weaponry.
Replacing the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, the new document prioritizes homeland defense with China in mind; deterring strategic attacks against the U.S. and allies; deterring aggression while preparing to prevail in a conflict when necessary; and “prioritizing the PRC challenge in the Indo-Pacific, then the Russia challenge in Europe,” according to the summary.
North Korea, Iran and violent extremist organizations are described as “persistent threats.”
The Trump administration’s strategy, spearheaded by then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, marked a shift from principally fighting militant groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State to strategic competition with authoritarian powers Russia and China.
That focus has since driven defense budgets ever higher, even amid the shrinking American troop presence in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The new strategy comes as Russia shocked the globe by invading Ukraine, sparking Europe’s biggest land war since 1945. That’s galvanized the West behind military aid for Kyiv, crippling sanctions for Moscow and lifting allied defense spending, all while the invasion has exposed deep flaws in Russia’s military.
Meanwhile, U.S. national security officials have warned China is engaged in its largest-ever nuclear force expansion and arsenal diversification effort in its history, that it wants to match or exceed American capabilities in space, and that it presents a significant cyberespionage threat to the United States.
Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the National Defense Strategy’s “carefully chosen words reflect a consciousness about the time-phasing of threats and challenges.”
“China is the major challenge, and it’s a long-term, growing challenge. Russia is an immediate challenge, but quite frankly it’s a declining power, and over time they will become less of a threat because of economics, demographics, and they appear to overextend themselves now,” Harrison said.
“This conflict has revealed that the Russian military is not 10 feet tall,” he added. “They’ve got serious weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and coming out of this conflict they’ve got significant attrition of their capital assets and major weapon systems that they will not be able to replace anytime soon. So Russia could emerge from this conflict substantially weaker and a much smaller threat to European security than it was prior to this conflict.”
Eric Sayers, a former adviser to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and now senior vice president at Beacon Global Strategies, said the new strategy makes an important shift. “Trump NDS was China and Russia. This is China, then Russia,” he told Defense News.
A vocal advocate for making China the Pentagon’s enduring priority, Sayers said Tuesday the administration’s request was “maturing in the right direction.” But sea and air power investments, amid budget proposals to scuttle ships and aircraft, are “still not growing at a level commensurate with the challenge,” he added.
“The Pentagon seems intent on making planning for the PRC the enduring priority ahead of all other challenges, including Russia,” Sayers said. “That’s a win for those who believe the competition with the PRC is paramount both today and into the decades ahead. How this translates to resources is now the open question.”
Some defense officials justified their budgets this week in terms of the National Defense Strategy. For example, the Navy’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, Rear Adm. John Gumbleton, pointed to Russia’s recent nuclear posturing and the new NDS’ emphasis on deterring strategic attacks in order to highlight several of the service’s proposed investments. Those include the Columbia-class submarine, the Navy’s nuclear command-and-control systems and the Trident D5 sub-launched ballistic missile.
“When we look at the Navy-specific budget, that’s over [$8.5] billion just out of the Navy side of the DoD budget request, all in that one mission set. So a very significant investment for a very real requirement,” Gumbleton said.
Asked if the budget reflected last-minute changes based on Russia invading Ukraine, Gumbleton noted Russia is no longer considered a “near-peer” adversary.
“For your Navy-Marine Corps team, I would suggest that it’s agnostic. This budget gets after a near-peer competitor, of which Russia is not,” he said. “Now, they have nuclear weapons, that’s concerning. But they’re not a near-peer competitor. Your Navy-Marine Corps team, though, will be outfitted to go anywhere in the world, whether that’s near there or the South China Sea.”
Describing the new National Defense Strategy at a briefing for reporters Monday, Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord called Russia “an acute threat,” while calling China “our pacing challenge” and “our No. 1 challenge.”
Asked whether Russia is still considered a near-peer adversary, McCord demurred, noting the budget and strategy were set ahead of Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24. But he said Russia’s nuclear arsenal means the country must be taken seriously.
“We did not feel that what’s happening today altered the picture that China is the No. 1 issue to keep our eye on,” McCord said. “Obviously you can draw your own conclusions about Russia’s performance on the battlefield, but all these [budget and strategy] documents were pretty much finalized some time ago. So this is not attempting to be a commentary on what’s happening last week or the week before.”
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.