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Pentagon unveils budget priority for next year: Countering Russia and China

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter speaks about the upcoming Defense Department’s budget on Tuesday during a speech at the Economic Club of Washington in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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The Pentagon unveiled a proposal Tuesday to boost spending on advanced weaponry and the U.S. footprint in Europe, part of a plan to refocus the defense budget to counter technological and military advances by Russia and China.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter previewed the Pentagon budget proposal for fiscal 2017, making a case for why China’s rapid military buildup and Russia’s intervention beyond its borders pose a bigger danger to U.S. security, and merit larger investments, than does the immediate threat from the Islamic State.

“We don’t have the luxury of just one opponent, or the choice between current fights and future fights,” Carter said in an address at the Economic Club of Washington. “We have to do both.”

The proposal reflects Carter’s attempt to broaden the military’s focus to include not just the insurgent conflicts of the post-2001 era but also “higher-end” threats from Russia and China, whose military innovation U.S. officials acknowledge has at times out-paced the United States.

A senior defense official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the plans, said the advances made by Russia and China do “force a competition that has to be confronted in the next decade.”

Almost half of the new investments Carter will propose are related to what officials see as a growing threat from Moscow, where President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated his willingness to employ Russian military might from Ukraine to Syria.

Despite repeated cease-fire agreements, the conflict in Ukraine continues there between Russian-backed separatists and the government in Kiev.

If approved by Congress, the budget plan would quadruple funding to bolster the American military presence in Europe under an initiative Obama introduced in the wake of Russia’s move into Ukraine in 2014.

Under the proposed expansion to the European Reassurance Initiative, which would grow to $3.4 billion in 2017 under the new budget plan, the Pentagon would increase the U.S. troop presence in Europe; expand positioning of combat vehicles and other equipment there; help allies build up military infrastructure; and train more allied troops.

In addition to the 62,000 active duty service members stationed in 12 European nations, the Pentagon has had about 10,000-15,000 extra forces there since the summer of 2014.

While Obama’s 2014 initiative was welcomed by allies near Russia’s borders, it also stirred fears of a new arms race with an unpredictable power on the edge of Europe.

A senior administration official said the expanded U.S. presence was a result of more than a year of studying what European defenses require. “This is not really a provocation or an escalation,” the official said. “Rather, it is the result of our longer term response” to Russia’s foreign interventions.

The Obama administration also hopes the expanded American presence will prompt European countries to increase their own military spending.

The budget also seeks to chart a course for countering the military advances Russia and China have made in recent years, not only in building up traditional military assets but also in areas such as cyber. “It is fundamental for our department is to out-innovate and to stay ahead,” the first official said.

Under the new spending plan, the Pentagon would spend $71.4 billion on research and development in 2017, an increase of about $1.3 billion. In making those investment officials appear to be favoring smaller-scale, unmanned systems, such as a newly developed micro-drone. That tiny, hand-held device is made by 3D printing and can be dropped in swarms out of a fighter jet at high speeds.

Other new technology investments include a high-speed projectile that can be fired from existing Navy guns to protect against incoming missiles, an alternative to more expensive missile defenses such as the Patriot. Officials also hope to invest tens of billions of dollars in coming years on underwater weapons and enhancing weaponry on existing vessels.

The emphasis on maritime technologies comes as the Obama administration faces mounting pressure to mount a more muscular response to China’s military rise. While its military spending is still smaller than Washington’s, China has enjoyed double-digit increases in its defense budget recent years, placing a special emphasis on building itself as a naval power as it asserts ever-wider territorial claims in disputed waters.

Just last week, the Pentagon sent a missile destroyer close to a disputed island in the South China Sea in response to Chinese claims there.

The fiscal 2017 budget is likely to be the sole budget developed and presented by Carter, the academic and longtime defense technocrat took office nearly a year ago and is likely to step down with President Obama in early 2017.

Todd Harrison, a defense spending expert at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, cautioned that while Carter’s budget proposal may help shape the debate about future defense spending, it may have limited impact.

“The department may start down a certain path, but you’re going to have a new team next year and they’re likely to shift the course slightly,” he said.

Harrison said that Carter, who appears to be opting for investments in technology and innovation rather than trying to protect a larger force, would have to manage friction with some military leaders over his approach to the Pentagon’s future .

Carter is already in a public spat with his Navy secretary, Ray Mabus, in part over his plans to shift away from a ship the Pentagon’s top leadership say lacks firepower. Service chiefs and the heads of regional commands such as U.S. Central Command meanwhile are grappling with a host of dangers such as an expanding network of Islamic State affiliates with limited resources.

“The services and combatant commanders, they tend to be more worried about the near term, because it’s their problem,” Harrison said. “The long term belongs to someone else.”

Carter’s budget would provide a 50 percent increase to proposed spending against the Islamic State in 2017, to $7.5 billion. Part of that would go to replacing spent munitions— $1.8 billion for buying 45,000 smart bombs and laser-guided rockets—and funding an expansion of Special Operations activities.

The plan would also increase spending on cyber capabilities to around $7 billion, an increase of nearly $1 billion. That would include efforts to make the Pentagon’s electronic infrastructure—which like other parts of the U.S. government has been vulnerable to outside attack in the last year—more secure, and to boost offensive cyber capabilities.