The Chinese Foreign Ministry is busy sending out demarches. The reason? The signing of the National Defence Authorization Act Fiscal 2023(NDAA) by US President Joe Biden— that has plenty to say on China, and plenty of financial allotment to back that up.
For the rest of us, the budget of still the most powerful country in the world is of interest even if that power has been somewhat diminished, internally and externally. Apart from the military muscle for the Indo-Pacific, the whole is also a lesson in how the US budget process works— a labyrinthine one but mostly with a method to its madness.
Congress Hands Out Dollars for Defence Budget
The budgeting process is the keystone of Congressional control over the White House. The President is required to present his annual Federal Budget to Congress, which is put together through an interactive process between federal agencies and the President’s Office of Management and Budget.
It then goes to a budget committee, and then presented to the House and Senate floors where they can be amended. The defence budget or the National Defence Authorisation request is part of this process, and is debated separately under detailed headings, but flows from a National Security Strategy (NSS) mandated by Section 603 of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 (Public Law 99-433), and later a National Defence Strategy also required by law, which requires the Department of Defence to inform Congress on how it will implement the Strategy.
Following all that comes the actual budgeting process which prioritises spending. Congress doesn’t always go by what the President wants, raising funding levels, or reflecting political priorities.
This year was an acrimonious debate that has led to the removal of a mandate that all service personnel is vaccinated against Covid. That’s against the advice of the Defence Secretary, and is just one illustration of a divided country. But the budget process itself is ironclad and most importantly, bipartisan.
The Executive cannot run amok in either reducing or increasing the budget or spending it without a thorough debate. The downside is also that the process also delivers lawmakers' top priorities, while the executive usually ramps up the threat in order to get their desired funds. Remember that US documents were still hyping up the ‘Soviet threat’ even as it collapsed.
Is the US Military Prepared To Counter China’s Threat?
The NDAA authorises USD 816 bn ( original ask was USD 773 bn) apparently to cater to inflation. USD 30.3 billion for national security programs within the Department of Energy (DOE) including nuclear weapons programs, a USD 2.5 bn ask for inflation in fuel purchases, a large slice for undefined expenditures ‘outside’ the NDAA with the whole total coming to USD 857.9 billion.
It’s a nice fat sum and should please anyone, in the US at least. The Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin reiterated the ‘threat envelope’ in this order, defending the homeland paced to “a growing multi-domain threat posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC)”
Deterring strategic attack against the United States, Allies, and partners and also, aggression while being prepared to prevail in a conflict when necessary, prioritising the PRC challenge in the Indo-Pacific, then the Russia challenge in Europe. Little surprise then that Beijing is incensed. What follows is how dollars are to be spent in doing all of this, through not just the Department of defence but almost everybody else.
Congress’s ‘Joint’ Defence Strategy & Taiwan Agenda
There is a final objective, and that is “building a resilient joint force and defense ecosystem.” For the first time, the base document, the National Security Strategy conducted an integrated strategic review—Defence, the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), and Missile Defense Review (MDR) to ensure that strategy met with resources.
Though that is the textbook baseline for any budgeting process, this time Congress is also laying greater emphasis on getting more bang out of a ( declining) buck as it emphasises jointness, which is as difficult in the US as it is in India or anywhere else.
Militaries like their little empires. However, Congress also decided to raise shipbuilding capabilities by twenty percent, with an emphasis on sea power projection and construction of new ships, prohibited retirement of the F-22, or the B-83 gravity bomb, allotted additional missile defence sites, and allotted funds for an energetic push for hypersonic missiles, reversed cuts in construction, and asked for a report on how the US was replenishing its armaments following the supplies to Ukraine.
In the middle of the debate in the floor of the House was a reference to “crackpot in the Kremlin" and a commitment to Taiwan.
Perceiving The Real Threat(s)
That’s not just a gibe. It is followed by specific actions. An entire section on ‘Taiwan Enhanced Resilience Act’ details broadening the administration’s support, including ‘Modernising Taiwan’s security capabilities to deter and, if necessary, defeat aggression by the PRC, fast tracking foreign arms sales, and from China’s point of view the most aggravating, getting it greater visibility in international forums.
Congress has also demanded reports on China’s nuclear threat in an escalation dynamic and another, analysing the impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine on the PRC’s plans for Taiwan. Russia doesn’t really get much attention, other than assistance packages for Ukraine, and a lot of plans to bleed it further.
Much of this is standard fare, and its worth remembering that the much-touted ‘Pacific Deterrence Initiative’ (PDI) of May 2020, which in turn, was supposed to solidify the ‘pivot’ to the east, remained underfunded and ( according to Congress) more ‘platform-centric’ than goal-oriented.
In simple words, the PDI was used to buy all manner of equipment that the Pentagon wanted. Remember also that the NSS, while talking up the threat from China, also observed that “the Department will continue to prioritise maintaining open lines of communication with the PLA and managing competition responsibly”. All of this is largely standard ‘enemy’ vocalising.
The threat within – the Intelligence overload. To understand the real or perceived threat to the US, check out the section dealing with Intelligence. This includes not just a terse reference to the inclusion of a Space force as an element of the intel community, but a hugely widened role for the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).
How Will NDAA Impact Defence Partnership With India?
As far as India goes, there is a specific reference to ‘enhancing major defence partnership'. The NSS was even more specific in noting that the intention was “to enhance its ability to deter PRC aggression and ensure free and open access to the Indian Ocean region”. Congress also wants a report on U.S. support for India’s efforts to produce indigenous defense systems. This is all very heady, but has its attendant worries.
The US has never been the most reliable of allies at any time, anywhere but India has little choice as the China threat menaces. Recent overtures by Foreign Minister Wang Yi on being ‘ready to work with India ‘ has little meaning as long as the border issue is not sorted.
Meanwhile, there is much to learn from the US budgeting process, and the strong Parliamentary bipartisan approach. Our own Standing committee on Defence has been of a high standard. The problem lies in the opacity of bureaucracy, on the one hand, and a complete lack of debate in the house on defence.
When it is raised, it is usually with an intent to embarrass the government rather than a genuine commitment to national defence. Parliamentarians need to educate themselves on the issue, and be ready to support the government when required, at a critical time for this country with the supply disruptions due to the Ukraine war, a remerging pandemic, not to mention severe climate change. Added to all that, Congress's determination to intrude more into the Taiwan question, has just got things even more serious in the Indo-Pacific.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)