A U.S. Air Force and Pacific coalition aircraft formation flies over Guam during exercise Cope North 21, which was held near Andersen Air Force Base in February. Alliances are back in focus for the U.S. Senior Airman Duncan Bevan
Photo Caption & Credits

Strategy & Policy

June 30, 2021

Familiar Themes

June 7, 2021

The interim National Security Strategy guidance, together with the fiscal 2022 defense budget request, make clear that whatever their other differences, the Biden administration will stick with the National Defense Strategy put forward by the Trump administration.

President Biden’s security policy strongly echoes that of the 2018 strategy,  putting competition with China and deterrence of the Chinese and Russians front and center. It will continue the shift away from small wars in favor of preparing for a big one. The themes have been consistent since Biden’s inaugural address in January, when he promised allies that the U.S. would treat them with more respect and appreciation than they got from his predecessor, though the 2018 strategy, produced when James Mattis was Defense Secretary, also touted the importance of alliances and partners.  

Feared deep cuts in the 2022 defense budget request did not materialize. The strategic deterrence modernization program was fully funded, calming the worries of deterrence hawks that the two nuclear weapons—the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, which will replace Minuteman III missiles, and the Long-Range Standoff cruise missile—would be killed off. The Navy’s new sea-launched cruise missile also survived the change of administrations. A fresh nuclear posture review is expected, however, so changes could still follow.

The Air Force plan to divest legacy systems to free up funds for modernization survived in the administration’s budget review. Hundreds of aircraft will be retired if the plan wins congressional approval, allowing investment in hypersonic weapons, next-generation combat aircraft, and more. 

Any fears that the new administration would seek to dissolve or reduce the Space Force evaporated. The new service is seeking a 13 percent budget increase over 2021, up $2 billion. The Biden administration said the funds are needed to counter aggressive Chinese and Russian moves in space. 

Consistent with a focus on the Indo-Pacific, where naval and air forces are best matched to the vast region, the Army was slightly de-emphasized, but the Army was allowed to continue funding its long-range strike weapons programs intended to make it more relevant in the Indo-Pacific. 

It’s unclear when Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin’s new defense strategy will be ready, but Pentagon officials said the interim National Security Strategic Guidance, issued in March, is sufficient for now. That document calls China “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.” Russia, it argues, is simply determined to “enhance its global influence” by playing the role of spoiler on the world stage. 

Both countries have “invested heavily” to “check U.S. strengths and prevent us from defending our interests and allies around the world,” the interim strategy states. The document repeatedly cites the need for alliances and a mantra of “build back better” to meet strategic challenges “from a position of strength.”

Alliance Reliance 

The U.S. will “reclaim our place in international institutions; live up to our values at home and speak out to defend them around the world; modernize our military capabilities, while leading first with diplomacy, and revitalize America’s unmatched network of alliances and partnerships,” Biden wrote in the forward to the interim strategy.

The main differences between the Biden and Trump versions boil down to the way the military will posture itself to fight future pandemics, protect the rights of minorities, and “invest in solutions” as part of an all-of-government approach to problems abroad—before things get messy.

Pandemics, terrorism, humanitarian crises, cyber attacks, climate change and many other threats pose “in some cases, existential dangers,” but recognize no borders. They demand collective responses from like-minded nations.  

Underlying all of this is “a revolution in technology that poses both peril and promise,” the strategy warns. The first to exploit artificial intelligence and quantum computing in both the military and commercial worlds will have a strategic advantage, and the U.S. must invest to remain a leader. Those advances could help combat climate change and cure disease; emerging 5G networking technology will “set the stage for huge advances in commerce and access to information.” 

While the 2018 strategy pushed for technological dominance of potential allies, the Biden administration’s take is to instead rely on establishing a “favorable distribution of power” to prevent adversaries from threatening the U.S. and its allies or denying them access to the global commons.

The U.S. will also seek to “share responsibilities equitably,” a nod to the Trump administration’s persistent complaint that U.S. allies in Europe and the Pacific did not invest enough in their own defenses. The new administration will also “address the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons” and seek to “head off costly arms races and re-establish our credibility as a leader in arms control.” Case in point, Biden reversed course on extension of the New START Treaty with Russia and extended it, rather than letting it expire, as President Trump had planned. 

“Where possible, we will also pursue new arms control, arrangements,” the document states, something to which the Trump administration offered little more than lip service.

“We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure and effective,” the NSS states. America’s deterrence capabilities and commitments to allies will “remain strong and credible,” but it will again try to assert “nonproliferation leadership.”

Kendall Needs No Convincing 

The presumed next Air Force Secretary, Frank Kendall, expected to be confirmed by the Senate in June, spent years managing the Pentagon’s acquisition system during the Obama administration, including four years as the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. Before that, Kendall was the principal deputy to that position for two years.

The China threat, he testified, “is the reason, perhaps, that I’m interested in coming back into government.” In prepared answers, Kendall wrote that China went to school on America’s 1991 victory in the Gulf War and has since emulated its capabilities and structure “with the clear goal to defeat the ability of the United States to project power near China.”

Kendall said he supports a bigger defense budget but called the Biden administration’s fiscal 2022 request “adequate.” He said he would fight for the resources necessary to modernize the Air Force, pledging to “fight for the budget that’s necessary.”

The Air Force’s requirement for the B-21 bomber, now 145 aircraft, is “a reasonable number at this point,” Kendall said. Today’s bomber fleet of 220 aircraft, including 75 upgraded B-52s, would be “right sized” in the coming years, he said.

Kendall defended the A-10, given his own Army background and the jet’s “unique” capabilities in close air support, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). The fact that the fleet has been partially re-winged to extend its service life works in its favor, but he acknowledged that “there remain hard trades to be made.” Recent Air Force planning documents obtained by Air Force Magazine show the service intends to retain the A-10 until the early 2030s, after which leaders believe it will no longer be a survivable platform in even lightly defended airspace. 

Backing the F-35

The F-35 “is the best tactical aircraft of its type in the world,” Kendall told the SASC. He acknowledged its costliness, but also called it the “cornerstone” of the force. Acknowledging his own “long history” with the joint program, he said despite its struggles, he would support continuing the program.

“The key is getting the cost down,” and the main way to do that is “getting the numbers up,” Kendall told Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) “There’s a very strong correlation between the size of the fleet and the cost to sustain the fleet.” Buying more F-35s “would continue to drive [sustainment] costs down, overall.” 

But while Kendall wants to buy F-35s at a rate “that makes sense,” the Air Force’s plans actually slow acquisition from recent years. The Air Force requested 48 F-35s in its fiscal 2022 budget and did not include additional jets on its unfunded priorities list as it did in the past three years; Congress obliged each time by adding 12 more jets to its spending plan. Now Air Force plans indicate the service expects to scale back requests in the coming years, as well. The Future Years Defense Program that is typically released with the budget and shows the next four years out was not included with the fiscal ’22 budget request. But the “pre-decisional” version seen by Air Force Magazine showed cuts of 10 percent until F-35 sustainment costs come down and the Block 4 version starts to roll off the assembly line.