The Chinese spy balloon incident highlights both the brashness of China’s military ambitions and the U.S. military’s struggle to counter China’s bold moves with new capabilities such as modern air surveillance tools. The most pressing weapons threat the People’s Liberation Army poses to the United States is not balloons, however, but a vast missile program designed to hold the U.S. military at arm’s length, now outnumbering the U.S. in launch capacity and possessing technical advantage in the form of hypersonic missiles designed to outmaneuver defenses.
More systemically, the balloon incident lays bare the audacity of China’s increasingly aggressive military strategy and its focus on rapidly developing and fielding new capabilities. In response, the United States must focus on rapidly developing and fielding new tools to counter China’s bold actions.
The fundamental job of any leader is to identify priorities — challenges and opportunities — communicate them, and then make the hard choices necessary to make progress against these priorities. Too often, our defense enterprise fails to meet this bar. But the U.S. does have a few people in leadership positions who correctly identify a rising China as not only a top rhetorical priority but one that merits difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has defined seven initiatives to counter China, and Gen. David Berger, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, has launched a sweeping redesign of his force toward this same end.
What too few people realize is that even those rare defense leaders willing to make difficult tradeoffs are hamstrung to affect change in relevant time frames. An incoming Air Force secretary will be told that, given previous investments and must-pay bills, they can expect to affect only about 3-5 percent of the Air Force budget — and those changes in spending won’t be realized before three years from the date of their confirmation. Imagine, for a moment, that a corporate board replaced a CEO but the new leader wasn’t permitted to make investment changes for three years. Such a company would be outmaneuvered and outcompeted in its market, no matter the talent and vision of the CEO. Our government owes leaders a more agile system if we hope to compete with rival powers.
Starting new initiatives in a complex bureaucracy such as the Department of Defense will always be hard, because it means cutting existing, proven activities to nurture unproven ones. But even the rare leaders willing to face our stark new threats find themselves hindered. For example, Kendall was confirmed in July 2021 and inherited a 2023 budget that was already largely formulated. He announced seven initiatives in August, and immediately set to work inserting them in the arcane defense planning process. Congress will receive the first spending plan that fully incorporates his vision in March, and when it does, the request will be for funding starting in October 2023 — more than two years after his confirmation.
This stems from a plodding budget preparation process run by an industrial age bureaucracy. It gets worse, though. If this year resembles the past dozen, Congress won’t pass a budget on time but will vote to keep the lights on for the military through a continuing resolution, which prevents starting any new activity for an average of six months.
Even when funds are finally approved, chances are the military won’t spend them well. Managers charged with their use are forced to follow shocking and archaic rules. It takes months or even years to negotiate contracts and they are under intense pressure to spend funds or lose them at the end of a year. Managers often don’t have the freedom to shift funds from an effort that is failing to another that is succeeding. The practical result of this is that the Air Force won’t begin to move out on its new initiatives for a full year after funds are sent from Congress. Leaders like Kendall or Berger will face the end of their terms before the impacts of their work begin to be felt. This is no way to compete with the most serious military challenger that the U.S. has confronted since the Soviet Union.
In our divided and overtly political times, it may be unrealistic to expect Congress to pass a budget on time. But even so, there are achievable steps that can make a difference. For starters, Congress can create a limited authority permitting each military branch to move the funds required to start 10 new initiatives aimed at countering China, even as the full budget awaits approval. On its side, the Department of Defense can delegate the authority to shift funds between efforts to the managers actually running these initiatives, bypassing outdated accounting rules. These two simple steps could shave almost two years from the time it takes to launch a new strategic defense initiative. It’s not enough, but it would be a start.
The spy balloon is a wake-up call that highlights the boldness and aggression of China. This should remind Americans to expect more focus and agility from their government’s national security processes. They should expect leaders who recognize that our greatest national security challenges in the current era are not the ones we faced in the past and are willing to make unpopular choices to address them. They should expect a Congress willing to take investment risks to protect against catastrophe. They should expect that the defense financial stakeholders charged with protecting taxpayer funds — the Defense comptroller, the Office of Management and Budget, and the congressional appropriators — build a fast lane for matters of strategic national priority.