Wicker Leads Armed Services Republicans in Hearing, Questions Milley and Austin on China Threat

Miss. Senator: Congress Must Improve Biden Defense Budget to Deter China

March 28, 2023

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, R-Miss., today participated in a full committee hearing on the fiscal year 2024 defense budget with Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, and Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) Michael McCord. Wicker raised a range of issues with the senior defense officials, focusing especially on the Chinese military threat and improving the Department of Defense’s relationship with Congress.

In his remarks, the Mississippi senator blasted the Biden administration’s defense budget for not keeping pace with inflation, even as threats from China and Russia grow.

“For the third year in a row, President Biden has sent the Congress a budget request that cuts military spending amid a more dangerous and complex threat environment,” Wicker said. “We are in the most crucial years of our efforts to prevent aggression by our peer adversary, the Chinese Communist Party. The cost of failure in this effort would be nearly unthinkable.”

Senator Wicker also requested that Secretary Austin and Chairman Milley improve their transparency while working with Congress. The Mississippi senator cited the Pentagon’s delay in delivering crucial information related to the Chinese spy balloon, as well as hesitation in notifying Congress about recent Iranian-backed terrorist strikes in Syria during a key Senate vote on Middle East security and the use of military force.

In his questions to the panel, Wicker discussed the global security environment, current battlefield conditions in Ukraine, and the timely notification of Congress relating to pressing national security events. Specifically, Milley and Austin agreed with Wicker that the United States is facing the most complex security environment since World War II. Austin also committed to improve the Pentagon’s notification speed to Congress for important national security matters. Watch the exchange here.

Read Senator Wicker’s remarks as delivered below or watch them here.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I too would like to thank our witnesses for being here.  

For the third year in a row, President Biden has sent the Congress a budget request that cuts military spending amid a more dangerous and complex threat environment. We are in the most crucial years of our efforts to prevent aggression by our peer adversary, the Chinese Communist Party. The cost of failure in this effort would be nearly unthinkable. 

Despite international efforts to the contrary, Russia was not deterred from invading Ukraine, and that invasion has already cost the global economy well over $1 trillion – in addition to untold suffering and loss of life. Those costs will continue to mount unless we give the Ukrainians every single tool they need to win as soon as possible. 

Our intelligence community tells us a deterrence failure over Taiwan would make the economic effects of Ukraine conflict look vanishingly small.  

This year’s budget is the last one that funds capabilities that are likely to be fielded before 2027. That is the year by which Xi Jinping says he wants the People’s Liberation Army to be ready to take Taiwan. That makes our work here very urgent. 

I am heartened to see that the budget request prioritizes some programs of critical importance to near-term deterrence and warfighting – including the Strategic Capabilities Office, the DARPA-led Assault Breaker II, electronic warfare and cyber programs, and the emerging efforts to deliver real warfighting capability out of the JAD-C2 program. These near-term, high-return investments are crucial. Even so, I remain concerned that we are not moving fast enough on some of these efforts. 

At the same time, while the National Defense Strategy emphasizes the importance of our posture in the Western Pacific, I note this budget actually cuts the level of spending on key planning and design activities. This is despite the clear congressional signal sent by Senators Reed and Inhofe when they created the Pacific Deterrence Initiative several years ago. We cannot successfully deter Xi with a brittle basing and logistics infrastructure.  

Further, we must work together to think bigger and more creatively about the scale of investment and focus needed to compete with Beijing in the decades to come. Our current nuclear modernization efforts are moving too slowly and will produce a force ill-equipped to deter multiple nuclear-armed adversaries. The current approach to rebuilding our shipbuilding industrial base is also woefully insufficient. The Department of Defense has failed our shipbuilders by promising stability and then pulling the rug out from under them. This has hit amphibious shipbuilders particularly hard. This budget also fails by actually shrinking the U.S. Navy, this year and in future years, instead of growing the fleet, as is required by law. Congress – again – will need to rectify these failures.   

Yet even where Congress and the Department of Defense have agreed on our approach – such as with the submarine industrial base – progress has been too slow or nonexistent. We need to make generational investments across our basic defense infrastructure, including shipyards, munitions and ammunition plants, advanced test ranges, and even barracks for our servicemembers – and I appreciate the chair mentioning this in his statement.

Similarly, we cannot effectively compete with and deter our adversaries with the recruiting deficiencies we heard about at last week’s hearing, for example. I hope our witnesses will address that issue and state whether this budget contains every single possible investment that could alleviate the recruiting crisis.

Lastly, I want to discuss the department’s relationship with Congress. We have got some work to do on this front.

And let me mention two instances. 

First, on February 8, I sent the Secretary a letter asking some simple questions about the facts and decision-making surrounding the Chinese spy balloon. This was signed by Senator Rubio, the co-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. A deputy wrote back three weeks later with a non-answer which I can only describe as dismissive. So, I sent another letter reiterating my request. Yesterday afternoon – a day before this hearing – I finally received a response to my letter from the Secretary. I have significant questions about that response that I will address in questions for the record.  

Second, early last Thursday morning, an Iranian-backed attack killed one American contractor and injured several U.S. servicemembers in Syria. These troops are there to ensure that ISIS does not pose a threat to the United States. That very day, the Senate took several significant votes relating to the use of force against Iran. And yet no member of the Senate – to my knowledge – was informed about an attack by this very adversary, while we were voting on issues involving them.

Given the number of legislative affairs personnel, I find it hard to believe that no one in the executive branch was tracking the votes on the Senate floor, or thought of the nexus between our decisions and the very acts that were going on, on the other side of the globe. It is unacceptable that no one informed the Senate of this attack in a timely manner.   

Mr. Secretary and Mr. Chairman, we are all in this together. We are all on the same side here. I would strongly prefer that the Biden administration treat the Congress as a partner moving forward. And I thank the witnesses for appearing today, and I thank them for their service, and I look forward to their testimony. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.