‘Down payment’ for future war: Pentagon budget pours billions into AI, hypersonics, next-gen weapons

The Pentagon’s fiscal year 2022 budget request is a “down payment” on the technology and equipment the U.S. will need to win 21st-century wars, with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley saying that the military has made a conscious choice to focus on future conflicts ahead of current needs.

The Biden administration’s first full-year Defense Department spending plan — the details of which were released publicly Friday afternoon — includes hundreds of billions of dollars for cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), lightning-fast hypersonic and long-range weapons, cyber and space capabilities, next-generation combat vehicles and other programs that will form the core of U.S. defense strategy for decades to come.

The total budget request of $715 billion is an $11 billion increase over the final figure enacted last year. That increase is low by defense spending standards of years past.

Key lawmakers pressed Gen. Milley on Thursday about the Pentagon’s spending compromises. He said the military has made a choice to target its finances toward the future.

“This budget … is biasing the future over the present, slightly,” Gen. Milley told the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense. “We are trying to put down payments on investments that are going to pay huge dividends 10, 15 years from now for a future force that will be able to compete successfully with any adversary out there, to include China.”

Indeed, the focus on gathering threats down the road underscores the Pentagon’s shift, begun under the Trump administration, away from the post-9/11 counterterrorism conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and toward so-called “great power competition” with major powers, chiefly China and Russia.

Both Beijing and Moscow are making their own major investments in advanced weapons and technology, and Pentagon officials say the U.S. must stay ahead of its top global rivals.

To do that, the Defense Department wants $112 billion in 2022 for research, development, testing and evaluation (RDT&E) — the highest number ever requested for such long-term initiatives. That number extends across each military service and other offices throughout the Defense Department.

In the Army, the RDT&E number will fund strategic long-range cannons, precision-strike missiles, the next-generation combat vehicle and other efforts. The strategic long-range cannon is part of the military’s broader long-range fires initiative, which aims to develop new artillery that can hit targets at remarkably far distances.

Such weapons, advocates say, would be vital in a theoretical Pacific conflict with China.

The Pentagon also is seeking $3.8 billion for hypersonics, an area in which America had been lagging behind its nearest rivals. The Pentagon, for example, plans to pour money into an Air Force program to develop an air-launched hypersonic cruise missile.

Hypersonic missiles are maneuverable, can travel at least five times the speed of sound and can be outfitted with nuclear warheads, making them especially dangerous. Such weapons are capable of defeating many older missile-defense systems.

The Pentagon also wants $874 million for its AI programs. The department’s total number of AI programs has increased by about 50% since just the last fiscal year, underscoring just how crucial autonomous technology has become to America’s war-fighting effort.

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