The Biden administration in its 2022 defense budget underfunded a vital program dedicated to stopping China from advancing in parts of the Pacific Ocean.
The administration fell about $1 billion short of the $4.7 billion the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Command requested. Lawmakers and experts told the Washington Free Beacon the Biden budget's neglect of the program will enable China and discourage allies, putting armed forces in the Pacific in a dangerous position.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Biden budget shows a major "disconnect" between what the Department of Defense needs and what the White House is willing to give it. Blackburn pointed to the Guam Defense System—a massively underfunded program tasked with protecting the more than 160,000 U.S. citizens living on the island—as a major disappointment. The Indo-Pacific Command chief requested $360 million for the Guam system and only received $118.3 million for the program.
"It is our constitutional command to provide for the common defense," Blackburn said. "The Indo-Pacific command chief got less than half of what he asked for. It shows you how far off base they are with this."
Guam’s defense is critical as one of the United States's westernmost holdings in the Pacific, giving the U.S. armed forces significant access to the area where China is closest. China has a complex system of rockets, bombers, and submarines that could leave Guam vulnerable to attack. The difficult terrain of the island and range of Chinese capabilities make Guam a difficult place to defend and standing U.S. defenses may not be sufficient, Missile Defense Agency chief John Hill said in June. In March, Adm. Phil Davidson called Guam a "target today" for China.
Mark Montgomery, a former Navy rear admiral and senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the Biden White House should have been taking a hard look at the Guam issue from "day one" when it put together a China task force.
"This is a key point where they should have been studying from day one because this budget issue was going to rear its head in three to four months—and it did," Montgomery said. "They kind of took a pass by funding it at one-third. They’re not really picking any decision."
The budget for the broader initiative has several problems. A meager sum of only $500,000 is dedicated to alliance building, and less than 1 percent of the program’s funds will go to preparing soldiers for a potential attack.
Dustin Walker, the former lead adviser on the Indo-Pacific for the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the defense program is a "swing and a miss" for the Biden administration's Pentagon.
"This was the Pentagon’s first opportunity to implement PDI [Pacific Deterrence Initiative], and it was just a complete swing and a miss," Walker said. "In fact, they missed the mark so badly on PDI, you almost have to ask if it was deliberate."
Montgomery said Congress must make adjustments to the budget's shortfalls or American security will face dire consequences.
"If Congress doesn’t fix this, two things are going to happen," Montgomery said. "One, China will lean into it. There’s a strong signal to China that we’re not that interested in deterring [them]. Our actions do not follow our words on this. It has an impact on your allies and partners as well. The second thing is that we will be less ready to fight."
Blackburn contrasted Biden's approach to China’s massive buildup of naval capabilities, which could threaten Guam and Taiwan in the next decade.
"The Chinese have spent the last 25 years trying to modernize their Navy…. When you look at our battleships versus theirs, they’re surpassing us." Blackburn said. "This [program] is vital when you look at great power competition and you look at the blue-water navy that China is very aggressively building."
Republican lawmakers criticized the Biden defense budget in interviews with the Free Beacon for its rollback of plans drafted in the Trump administration to expand the Navy. The Chinese navy officially overtook the United States for having the most ships in the world, and it is currently building a third aircraft carrier.
The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment.