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Military brass undercuts Biden budget by requesting billions more

The lists of unfunded requests from the generals and admirals will bolster hawks on Capitol Hill

Navy Adm. Charles Richard wrote to lawmakers this month to warn that the U.S. faces a "deterrence and assurance gap" in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Navy Adm. Charles Richard wrote to lawmakers this month to warn that the U.S. faces a "deterrence and assurance gap" in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Corrected April 7 | Republicans and some Democrats on Capitol Hill skeptical of President Joe Biden’s proposed 2.2 percent increase in funding for the Defense Department next year are getting some help from the military’s top commanders.

In a series of unfunded requirement lists sent to lawmakers from military services and commands and obtained by CQ Roll Call, generals and admirals asked for billions in additional funds not included in Biden’s plan.

The Navy, for example, wants $4.9 billion more, and the Marine Corps $3.5 billion. Southern Command, which oversees national security threats in Central and South America, has asked for more than $270 million, while Northern Command, which has responsibility for North America, wants an additional $130 million. Space Command wants less than $100 million in additional operations and maintenance funds. Lists from the other services and commands were not yet available. 

The list from Strategic Command, which has responsibility for nuclear forces, requests no additional funds, but nonetheless paints a bleak picture of its preparedness that hawkish lawmakers are sure to cite as evidence of the need for more money.

In a letter to lawmakers earlier this month, the command’s leader, Navy Adm. Charles Richard, said the Biden budget represented the “minimum essential to remain able and ready to deter and prevail against the unprecedented challenges and threats our Nation faces today.” 

He added that the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s “nuclear trajectory” have convinced him that a “deterrence and assurance gap” now exists. In other words, the U.S. will need to take additional steps to deter its adversaries and reassure its allies of their security going forward. 

To that end, Richard proposed a “low yield, non-ballistic capability to deter and respond without visible generation,” an almost certain reference to the Sea-Launched Cruise Missile-Nuclear development program, which Biden’s budget would scrap. 

And Richard isn’t the only military leader undercutting Biden on the cruise missile program. 

Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, told members of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee last week that he agreed with Richard. 

And on Tuesday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told House Armed Services Committee members that he too supports the program. (Milley was quick to note the missile would make up a small portion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and that “no foe should underestimate our capability,” whether the program is scrapped or not.)

F-35s requested

What the Navy and Marine Corps requests show is that at least two of the services would prefer more F-35 fighter jets than Biden asked for.

The Navy’s $4.9 billion list of so-called unfunded requirements includes $708 million to procure six additional F-35 fighter jets. The Marine Corps has also sought a half dozen F-35s of its own that were not in the president’s budget. Whether the Air Force chief will also seek additional F-35s in his own unfunded list remains to be seen.

The Pentagon’s fiscal 2023 budget request included funds for nearly one-third fewer F-35s for all three services than the Defense Department said last year it planned to ask for — 33 instead of 48 — though the department has not said it plans to reduce the total inventory objective, including forthcoming orders, over the long term.

The Navy document says six more F-35s would support “strategic competition,” presumably a reference to China and perhaps Russia.

Still, the Navy’s request won’t please the most hawkish lawmakers. It does not include money for a major warship.

Congressional hawks are angry that the Biden budget would actually reduce the size of the overall fleet by a net 15 ships, because the budget proposal would add nine major battle force vessels but would retire 24.

At the same time, the service has been in hot water with the defense committees for omitting enormously expensive ships from its budget requests in each of the last two fiscal years while then seeking money for them anyway via the unfunded priorities process. Two years ago the gambit concerned a Virginia class submarine, and last year it was an Arleigh Burke class destroyer.

Asking Congress to fund major procurements in this way puts the onus on lawmakers to find the funds, critics have said, and appropriators have written in reports that the practice also begs questions about the integrity of the Navy’s budget process.

Still, it’s likely congressional hawks will seek to add ships anyway.

In its list, the Marine Corps does ask for $250 million to begin procurement of a new amphibious ship.

The Navy list is mostly focused on projects that would enhance the service’s ability to operate and maintain its systems — such as spare parts and facilities upgrades.

But there are other aircraft requests. These include $446 million for three more KC-130J transport planes. The Marine Corps list would likewise seek two more of those aircraft than the president asked for, as well two CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift cargo helicopters.

The Navy list includes, for $400 million, two additional E2-D Hawkeye aircraft, which provide carrier battle groups early warning of potential threats.

In a separate list, the Navy is seeking $931 million in military construction projects that were not included in the official budget request. The Marine Corps wants $614 million for construction, including new barracks for recruits at Parris Island, S.C., and San Diego.

Southern and Northern commands

Southern Command, responsible for military operations in Latin America, has also asked Congress for extra funding.

Its biggest ask is for $91.5 million to continue assisting the militaries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala in combating drug trafficking. The drug trade in those Northern Triangle countries is a driver of emigration to the United States, and Biden tasked Vice President Kamala Harris last year with assisting the countries.

Also on the list is a $42.5 million request to support the Paraguayan military’s tracking of illicit drug traffickers who use Paraguay’s unmonitored airspace as a transportation lane for narcotics shipments. The funds would be used to equip the Paraguayan Air Force with radar capable of locating drug trafficking aircraft. 

Northern Command, which oversees U.S. military operations and defense in North America, has asked Congress for $51 million to bolster a system for intercepting Russian missiles, according to its unfunded priorities list.

Northern Command also asks for nearly $30 million to support artificial intelligence and machine learning initiatives in its Joint Operations Center and $49 million for upgrades to the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, a Space Force installation and defensive bunker outside of Colorado Springs, Colo.

Space Command, meanwhile, has written lawmakers seeking relatively few additional funds, all of it for operations and maintenance activities. The command wants $37 million for running battle management and other systems, $29 million to buy computers and furniture for a Consolidated Space Operations Facility, the construction of which is funded, plus $9 million to upgrade the current space in the meantime. 

This report has been corrected to reflect the number of F-35 fighter jets the Defense Department is asking Congress to fund.

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