The U.S. military must be ready for possible confrontation with China, the Pentagon's leaders said, pushing Congress to approve the Defense Department's proposed $842 billion budget, which would modernize the force in Asia and around the world.
"This is a strategy-driven budget — and one driven by the seriousness of our strategic competition with the People's Republic of China," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in testimony before the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense.
Pointing to increases in new technology, such as hypersonics, Austin said the budget proposes to spend more than $9 billion, a 40% increase over last year, to build up military capabilities in the Pacific and defend allies.
The testimony comes on the heels of Chinese leader Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow, which added to concerns that China will step up its support for Russian President Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine and increasingly threaten the West.
China's actions, said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "are moving it down the path toward confrontation and potential conflict with its neighbors and possibly the United States." He said deterring and preparing for war "is extraordinarily expensive, but it's not as expensive as fighting a war. And this budget prevents war and prepares us to fight it if necessary."
Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., pressed the defense leaders on Xi's meeting with Putin and its impact on U.S. competition with China, which he called "the elephant in the room." The U.S., he said, is "at a crucial moment here."
The growing alliance between China and Russia, two nuclear powers, and Xi's overtures to Putin during the Ukraine war are "troubling," Austin said.
He added that the U.S. had not yet seen China provide arms to Russia, but if it does, "it would prolong the conflict and certainly broaden the conflict potentially not only in the region but globally."
Milley, who will retire later this year, said the Defense Department must continue to modernize its forces to ensure they will be ready to fight if needed. "It is incumbent upon us to make sure we remain No. 1 at all times" to be able to deter China, he said.
Two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan eroded the military's equipment and troop readiness, so the U.S. has been working to replace weapons systems and give troops time to reset. It's paid off, Milley told Congress.
"Our operational readiness rates are higher now than they have been in many, many years," Milley said. More than 60% of the active force is at the highest states of readiness right now and could deploy to combat in less than 30 days, while 10% could deploy within 96 hours, he said.
Milley cautioned that those gains would be lost if Congress can't pass a budget on time, because it will immediately affect training.
Members of the panel, including Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., also made it clear that while they support the ongoing U.S. assistance to Ukraine, "the days of blank checks are over." And they questioned the administration's ultimate goal there.
Milley said the intent is to make sure that Ukraine remains a free and independent country with its territory intact, maintaining global security and the world order that has existing since World War II.
"If that goes out the window," he said, "we'll be doubling our defense budgets at that point, because that will introduce not an era of great power competition, that will begin an era of great power conflict. And that will be extraordinarily dangerous for the whole world."
The hearing was likely one of Milley's last in front of Congress. His four-year term as chairman — capping a 43-year military career — ends in October. While many members took the opportunity to thank him for those years of service, it was also an opportunity to press him on one of the darkest moments of his chairmanship — the loss of 13 service members to a suicide bomber at Abbey Gate during the chaotic American evacuation from Afghanistan.
Questions remain about the bombing, and Republicans have criticized President Joe Biden's decision to completely withdraw from Afghanistan in August 2021. During an intense two-week evacuation, which took place as Kabul fell to the Taliban, U.S. forces got more than 120,000 personnel out of the country, but paid a large price in the lives of U.S. service members and Afghans. The withdrawal also left behind many Afghans who worked with and supported U.S. troops during the war, and efforts to get them out continue.
"I can think of no greater tragedy than what happened at Abbey Gate. And I have yet to fully reconcile myself to that entire affair," Milley told the panel members. He called the end state, which left the Taliban in control of the country, a strategic failure.
But that "did not happen in the last 19 days or even the last 19 months. That was a 20-year war," Milley said. "There were decisions made all along the way which culminated in what the outcome was. And there's many many lessons to be learned."
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