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Inflating China Threat to Balloon Pentagon Budget

(Photos: Getty Images; Illustration: Leslie Garvey / POGO)

Alarmist headlines warning of a looming military threat posed by China are splashed across the pages of national security trade publications and mainstream media on a nearly daily basis. Log into a news site, and you’re likely to see a stark headline like this:

China’s growing military confidence puts Taiwan at risk

China, Russia are prime threats to U.S. security, interests, intelligence survey finds

China—A Deadly ‘Infinite Game’: Army Chief McConville

If you think you’re seeing an unusual volume of news about a rising military threat posed by China, you’re not wrong. A quick search on LexisNexis shows in a handy chart how mentions of “Chinese military” have increased in frequency world-wide over the past 40 years.

Mentions of “Chinese military” on LexisNexis have increased in frequency world-wide over the past 40 years.

The Chinese military appeared in 15,186 stories in 2020, an increase of 57% since the year before and 3,875% since 1980. A search of just the first four months of 2021 revealed 8,528 mentions, a pace that, if continued, will more than double 2020.

More importantly, Congress has been talking about the China threat with greater frequency in recent years. The same search done in Quorum, a public affairs database that allows users to track specific policy issues, shows an even more dramatic rise in just the past two years.

Quorum, a public affairs database that allows users to track specific policy issues, shows an even more dramatic rise in the search term "Chinese military" in the past two years.

A search of the database showed there were 139 mentions of “Chinese military” in congressional floor debates, hearings, press releases, and letters to constituents throughout 2020. That figure is up more than 39% from the year before.

The increased frequency of mentions of a China threat is odd considering that the last significant military incident between American and Chinese forces was more than 20 years ago in 2001 during the Hainan Island Incident when a Chinese fighter collided with a U.S. Navy intelligence aircraft off the coast of China. There have been periodic occasions when Chinese jets have approached American reconnaissance aircraft flying over international waters off the coast of China since then, but none have escalated beyond observation or shows of force. China has fought minor skirmishes with India in the past year over disputed border regions, which has resulted in a few dozen casualties. China continues to loom over Taiwan, something it has been doing since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Beijing’s crackdown on dissidents in Hong Kong is also troubling. And a rising China does alter the strategic balance that has largely held firm since the demise of the Soviet Union. But are those enough to justify the constant barrage of breathless reporting of an imminent threat?

With little in the way of demonstrated aggression that could be considered an actual military threat from China, what could explain the increase in news reporting about such a threat, particularly over the past few years? One likely explanation is that there has also been a growing consensus that Pentagon budgets could and should stay flat or be reduced. History suggests the correlation is not coincidental: Pentagon Brass and defense corporations don’t want to see flat or reduced budgets, and need justification to continue to request high budgets. Raising the specter of a China threat gives them reason to request more money.

Theoretical Threats to Justify Real Overspending

As a general rule, military spending increases during wartime and decreases when peace returns. However, the Center for International Policy studied the ebb and flow of American defense spending since 1948, presenting their findings in inflation-adjusted figures, and what those findings indicate is that the general rule is changing.

While they found that the defense budget spiked during the Korean and Vietnam wars, they also found that the spending levels failed to return to pre-war levels over the past 70 years. The Pentagon’s budget increased 434% during the Korean War, and while it did decrease after the war ended, it only fell by 60%, which “signaled the beginning of our era of permanently large defense forces in response, at least initially, to the Communist threat,” according to a Center for International Policy report.

This satisfied the military-industrial-congressional complex’s appetite for a 3%-5% annual cost growth, a figure that is cited over and over as necessary to stay ahead of the threat du jour. President Joe Biden’s proposed $715 billion 2022 budget for the Department of Defense is less than 2% more than the current budget enacted by Congress, but boosters are already mustering forces to increase that figure, and a threat posed by China provides cover for them to do so. The Pentagon’s unfunded wish list includes $17 billion of additional spending beyond the president’s proposal, and the new Space Force is asking for another $2.2 billion. If Congress acts on these plus-up requests, Pentagon spending will effectively increase 4% from the current budget.

Occasionally annual defense spending doesn’t keep pace with the average annual growth rate (this happened in the first few years after the end of the Vietnam War). In the absence of a war, the only way to keep the money flowing is to capitalize on the threat of a future theoretical one.

In the absence of a war, the only way to keep the money flowing is to capitalize on the threat of a future theoretical one.

President Ronald Reagan did just this. He pointed to an aggressive Soviet Union that had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and seized the moment to increase spending by 46% during what turned out to be the culminating moment of the Cold War. Contrary to the current conventional wisdom, the purpose of the spending increase during the 1980s was not to provoke the Soviet leaders to spend themselves into bankruptcy, but was instead a genuine effort to create a military force capable of fighting a conventional war against the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet Union did end up going broke in part by trying to keep pace with the West’s military spending, but it was only afterwards when the economic collapse of communism became apparent that supporters of perpetually high military budgets claimed Reagan’s goal all along had been to outcompete the Soviet Union economically.

After a long period of largely stagnant defense budgets following the end of the first Cold War, 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan offered the perfect cover for increasing budgets to spend beyond what was necessary to carry out the war mission. But then troops began coming home during the initial withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, and in 2012 there was a rapidly decreasing American military presence in Afghanistan, both of which made it harder to justify the war-time budget levels.

Enter: The China Threat.

An emerging superpower nation with 1.4 billion people attempting to raise its status in the world through economic expansion and a corresponding military buildup serves as a convenient antagonist proponents of perpetually high U.S. military spending could use to further their cause.

There are negative, real-world consequences to having virtually unlimited budgets and virtually no oversight. We’re seeing some of those consequences now, as bills for the big-ticket weapon programs launched at the beginning of the century come due. In part because today’s marquee weapon programs were begun during one of the periods Congress opened the budgetary floodgates, the services and their counterparts in the defense industry were unbounded in their futuristic visions. With money being no object, they had little incentive to discipline themselves with regards to designs and features they would include. As a result, we’re paying astronomical amounts of money to purchase ineffective weapon systems. Too many of the new aircraft and ships rolling off the assembly line are massively overbudget, years—in some instances even a decade-plus—behind schedule, and far less effective than promised.

There are negative, real-world consequences to having virtually unlimited budgets and virtually no oversight.

It is how we ended up paying $400,000 for each helmet for F-35 pilots that allowed them to “see” through the aircraft but that still don’t function properly. It’s also how we ended up with failure-prone electromagnetic catapults to launch planes from aircraft carriers instead of the reliable steam systems in the existing carriers. It’s part of the reason the Army spent nearly $20 billion to develop an entire new generation of high-tech vehicles as part of the Future Combat System and ended up with nothing to show for it. And it’s why two entire ship classes, the Zumwalt-class and the Littoral Combat Ships, became conceptual failures and have now essentially been abandoned. Had resources been more restrained at the beginning of these programs, service leaders would have had little choice but to opt for simpler designs that would have greatly decreased the likelihood of technological failures while making it easier for the services to get the fleet sizes they need.

With these systems and more, the U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex is well on the way toward repeating the Soviet Union’s mistake during the Cold War: We could very well be bankrupting ourselves. An attempt to keep pace with China’s military expansion will only exacerbate—and speed up—that process. Few appear to question the necessity of keeping pace with China’s military expansion, or even whether it would be possible for us to do so by developing and purchasing massively expensive and underperforming weapons. Matching or exceeding China’s military buildup prompts the Pentagon to pursue stealth aircraft and ships at an enormous cost. But is it even necessary?

Lost in the single-minded pursuit of military dominance over China is the simple fact that the vast majority of these new Chinese military capabilities are inherently defensive in nature. They are not meant to project military power beyond what Chinese leaders consider their territorial waters.

As POGO has previously reported:

Even those moves that appear to signal a more aggressive Chinese naval strategy may in fact be a cover for a different goal. China has purchased and modified one decommissioned Soviet aircraft carrier and is now building three of its own. But Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes, authors of Red Star Over the Pacific (required reading for both the US Navy and Marine Corps), say the People’s Liberation Army Navy “is taking an unhurried approach to developing carriers.”
Navy leaders and Congress should consider the possibility that China may be building aircraft carriers as a means of convincing the United States to continue sinking massive investments in our own carrier force.

A Ford-class aircraft carrier costs more than $13.3 billion, and the air wing another $5 billion, meaning an American aircraft carrier concentrates more than $18 billion in just one ship. As we previously noted:

The Navy seems only too willing to take the bait. The commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Admiral Chris Grady, responding to a report of a new Chinese aircraft carrier in September 2020, said, “Good on ’em. It makes the argument that carriers are important.”

Much has also been made of China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) technology—the array of sensors and the anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles meant to prevent any military power from approaching their coast. China’s air defenses provide the Air Force with some form of justification to buy more complex stealth fighters and bombers, even though unmanned aircraft or standoff weapons would accomplish the same ends without putting a pilot in danger and be far less expensive.

A Different Path Forward

China’s efforts to expand its influence and economic reach around the globe do present strategic and economic challenges for the United States. To protect their interests, China has increased its military potential. But that does not mean China presents an imminent military threat to the United States. A strictly conventional war between two nuclear superpowers is likely not even theoretically possible. The Pentagon plays out wargame scenarios like this, and has found that when one side starts to lose, pressure mounts to use nuclear weapons to turn the tide. And a war between the United States and China would be devastating to both sides, even if such a conflict could somehow be fought without resorting to nuclear weapons. If the military-industrial-congressional complex were truly interested in defending against China, we would be better served by concentrating our efforts on protecting American shores with an anti-access/area denial network of our own. Doing so makes much more sense than building up our already massive offensive capabilities. The problem is, it would also be far less expensive—something neither the Pentagon nor the defense industry wants.

Further, we are far more likely to actually fight a war against a less sophisticated adversary than against China. The kind of delicate, high-cost weapons the defense industry and its boosters in Congress promote are ill-suited in those conflicts. The good news is that preparing for a lower-intensity conflict is far less expensive than the alternative. Rather than allowing certain alarmist media and policymakers to persuade us that there is a looming existential threat from China and bankrupting our children and grandchildren to build a military to fight a war that is unlikely, we should do our best to tune out that commentary.