WASHINGTON — The Biden administration’s mishaps, from Afghanistan to fiscal incontinence, are manifold and manifest. Regarding what matters most, however — countering China’s ever-cruder threats — administration policy is admirable, although underfunded.
A pivot toward something is necessarily a pivot away from something, and the U.S. pivot toward Asia — announced by President Barack Obama in Australia in 2011 — implied diminished concern with Europe. This became vivid with last month’s announcement of AUKUS, the Australian, U.K. and U.S. security agreement to share U.S. nuclear submarine technology (hitherto shared only in 1958 with Britain) to enable Australia to acquire nuclear submarines. This scuttled a more than $60 billion deal (a sum larger than France’s 2020 defense budget) for 12 French diesel submarines.
France is called America’s “oldest ally” because, after Americans won the 1777 Battle of Saratoga, France, relishing Britain’s difficulties, used its fleet to support the revolution, which in 1781 was helpfully offshore at Yorktown. Current exigencies, however, trump historic gratitude, and stealthy, long-range nuclear submarines are required for Australia’s involvement in the Quad (with Japan, India and the United States) countering China. A U.S. spokesman deserves an Oscar for saying, straight-faced, that AUKUS “is not aimed or about any one country.”
China’s clumsy bullying has transformed Australian public opinion and propelled Australia into a long-term alignment against China. When Australia called for an investigation of the origins of COVID-19, China’s juvenile, state-controlled media denounced Australia as “a giant kangaroo that serves as a dog of the U.S.” and “chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes.” Beijing also fired a blunderbuss of severe impediments to Australian exporters, who powered their nation’s pre-pandemic run of 29 years without a recession. And Beijing presented Canberra with an insulting 14-point ultimatum, the distilled essence of which was: Shut up, or else. AUKUS is Australia’s riposte.
Inexplicably, the Biden administration has responded to China’s increasing coarseness, South China Sea aggressiveness and gusher of military spending by proposing to cut real (inflation-adjusted) U.S. defense spending. And nearly 40% of the House Democratic caucus voted, in vain, to cut the defense budget 10%.
But in a rare episode of bipartisanship, a coalition of the sentient added $25 billion to the defense authorization bill. Sixty percent of the House Democratic caucus, a coalition of the almost-never-parsimonious, opposed this.
The $25 billion down payment on military adequacy was instigated by Virginia’s second-term Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, a Naval Academy graduate and 20-year Navy officer whose district includes the world’s largest naval base, at Norfolk. With a soft voice and a steel spine, she worries that the Navy’s protracted mission of force-projection in support of Iraq and Afghanistan operations caused the atrophying of some skill sets germane to discouraging China’s lawlessness in the South China Sea. There, she says, “every day they are testing us”: “They are on their home field, so the tyranny of distance is on their side.”
Aircraft carriers somewhat compensate for this. U.S. law mandates 11 carriers, which Luria considers insufficient for a Navy operating in 24 time zones. But she, a veteran of the surface Navy, says submarines are the main muscles of the Navy’s western Pacific mission.
In “To Rule the Waves,” the Brookings Institution’s Bruce D. Jones cites an Australian university report that says: “As the environment above the surface becomes more deadly because of Chinese deployments of cruise missiles, hypersonic technologies and anti-air defenses, America’s enduring advantage in undersea warfare will become increasingly important in the regional balance of power.” Jones says “Korean, Japanese and even Malaysian and Vietnamese submarines” are active in the western Pacific.
The U.S. Navy is spending $22.2 billion for nine nuclear-powered attack submarines, but Luria questions the adequacy of the nation’s shipbuilding infrastructure. She would like the head of the current administration to advocate for some expansion of today’s 297-ship Navy as persistently as Ronald Reagan advocated for a 600-ship Navy. (It reached 597.) In 2010, she says, the U.S. Navy had 68 more ships than China’s navy; today it has 63 fewer.
Given today’s incontinent domestic spending and trillion-dollar structural deficits, the defense budget is under constant downward pressure. Luria wishes U.S. military leaders, instead of “working backward” from the funding they think possible to the missions they therefore think feasible, would forthrightly tell Congress “this is what we need, and this is the risk if we don’t get it.”
Some dismiss those risks as hypothetical. There is one certain way to learn that they are actual: the hard way.
George Will’s email address is email@example.com.