Experts Warn Congress Not To Cut Defense Spending: Another Putin Invasion Likely

Russian president Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin / Reuters
February 16, 2023

Russia is likely to invade countries beyond Ukraine, a former national security adviser to Donald Trump testified before Congress on Wednesday, warning against cuts to U.S. defense spending proposed by some House Republicans as part of debt-limit talks.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is "interested in reacquiring territory in what was the space of the former Russian Empire," Fiona Hill, a member of former president Trump's National Security Council, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "All of those countries feel a great deal of anxiety."

"Putin has said the world needs to get used to the fact that Russia is territorially expanding again," said Hill, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in Russia and Europe. "This is a pretty grim picture."

Approaching the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion, more—not less—investment in U.S. defense capabilities is needed, members of the expert panel told lawmakers Wednesday. They said America could otherwise fail to meet Ukraine's demands for military equipment and find itself lagging far behind adversaries Russia, China, and Iran.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, seeking Western support for his country's defensive war against Russia, has warned that Moscow has designs on territory elsewhere in Europe. Both Moldova's pro-Western government and Kazakhstan have expressed concerns about the threat from Russia.

China—which has undertaken its own massive military buildup in recent years—is happy to see the war in Ukraine continue to drain America's resources, according to Hill.

"China has no interest in Russia losing in this war and might, in fact, have a vested interest in this war going on in Ukraine as long as possible because of course it does take up a large amount of equipment and armaments," she said.

With Russia showing no signs of backing down, the United States now stands at "the precipice of a new stage in the war where Ukraine will need tanks and other conventional offensive platforms," according to Roger Zakheim, a former Armed Services Committee official who serves as Washington, D.C., director for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.

The "massive consumption" of military hardware in Ukraine has exposed America's inability to quickly produce military equipment, said Zakheim, urging that the United States recapture its "builder's mindset."

Amid negotiations between House Republicans and the White House over raising the debt ceiling, isolationist GOP lawmakers have teamed up with progressive Democrats to push significant cuts to defense spending to tackle America's $1.4 trillion deficit. Some Republicans have specifically questioned U.S. aid to Ukraine.

But Senate Republicans have informed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) that they will block any attempts by his caucus to target defense spending. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R., S.C.) last week told McCarthy that cuts to defense are unacceptable, Punchbowl News reported Wednesday.

"My goal is to get Kevin and everybody looking at the defense needs based on threats," Graham said to Punchbowl. "I don't want to go backward because, when you look at the threat China [presents], we don't have the military footprint where we need it to be."

Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), the Armed Services Committee's ranking member, signaled he will fight any efforts to cut the U.S. defense budget.

"There's no doubt that continued real growth in the defense budget top line above inflation—real growth above inflation—is an absolute necessity, a bare necessity," Wicker said. "We are in the crucial years of this military competition and we cannot afford to let our guard down."

China is already outpacing the United States in its construction of advanced weaponry, Wicker warned other senators Wednesday, saying that "a significant investment" in America's defense industry is needed to "keep us a step ahead of Beijing."

"The United States also needs to continue to invest in our military to ensure the [Department of Defense] has the resources needed to train and invest in our capabilities to deny [China's] aggression and to build a more resilient and dispersed U.S. posture," agreed Bonny Lin, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' China Power Project.

Though defense spending has steadily risen in recent years, America is facing a military hardware deficit, according to the Reagan Institute's Zakheim.

"We are far below the scale of investment required to replace air, land, and sea platforms with [artificial intelligence] infused autonomous systems," Zakheim said. China has invested greatly in this technology and already stands to outpace America.

"China is rapidly incorporating the achievements of its commercial sector into its military modernization," he explained. "As Congress debates how to manage spending amidst the debt ceiling negotiations, it should be mindful that cutting defense to [fiscal year] 2022 level, which would be about 10 percent to the top line, would render the [White House's national] defense strategy non-executable."