What To Expect From Biden’s Pentagon

Joe Biden
Analysts predict a Defense Depart­ment under President-elect Joe Biden will seek better technology, perhaps at the expense of force structure.
Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty images

One of Joe Biden’s last speeches as U.S. vice president focused on nuclear security, touting passage of the New Start Treaty with Russia in 2010 and subsequent reductions in the U.S. stockpile of warheads. Four years later, nuclear modernization and arms control will be among the first major tests he faces when he assumes the presidency in January.

Under President Donald Trump, the Pentagon made notable strides in speeding up its cumbersome acquisition system, enabling the military to take better advantage of commercial technologies. The Defense Department also established what it calls “irreversible momentum” toward new space capabilities.

But it will fall to the Biden administration to shepherd many experiments in new technologies into actual programs. It will be Biden’s task to sell Congress on the idea of Joint All-Domain Command and Control. The new Democratic president could be dealing with a Senate controlled by Republicans, and he faces allies that see the U.S. as a less reliable partner than it was four years ago. He also will have to balance the modernization and readiness of the force within a budget that probably peaked in 2020.

  • Biden Pentagon to build on Trump acquisition wins
  • European allies hope for better relations

Shortly after he is inaugurated, Biden will face the Feb. 5 expiration of the New Start arms control treaty with Russia. His options are to extend the treaty for up to five years, for a shorter time frame or not at all. The Trump administration has been reluctant to agree to a full extension, given Russia’s aggressive modernization of nuclear systems not covered by the treaty. Biden’s advisors are likely to opt for extending the treaty to allow for more time for negotiations, predicts Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.

Republicans, meanwhile, are likely to be more focused on the threat of advanced weaponry in Russia and China, in particular the growth of strategic nuclear arsenals. Retiring Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, says he is “particularly concerned about where the Chinese are headed with the size and capability of their nuclear program.” He adds: “Like a lot of things related to the Chinese, we have probably been too complacent.”

Such tensions, and a Congress split along partisan lines, could help maintain support for nuclear modernization programs such as development of the next-generation ICBM, the Northrop Grumman Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), a program some analysts have thought a Biden administration might consider slowing or canceling. “Any serious push to retire the ICBM force and do away with the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program would not be supported by the Senate,” Cowen analysts say.

spaceship launch
Defense analysts see a continued partisan divide as beneficial to ongoing development of the U.S. Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent future ICBM program. Credit: Northrop Grumman

A Biden administration likely means more of the same for the U.S. industrial base, for better or worse. The U.S. defense budget is expected to remain flat, putting pressure on the Pentagon to find ways to get more bang for its buck and better technologies against peer rivals—at the expense of traditional force structure.

“Technology investment is likely to be most important, including network integration, hypersonics, artificial intelligence, long-range strike and missile defense,” Bernstein analyst Doug Harned and his team say. “We expect a lot of activity around integration, but exactly what this means is still ill-defined. Force structure may well come under more pressure. This means lower numbers of troops, aircraft, vehicles, ships, etc.”

Downward pressure on force structure would be bad for Lockheed Martin, given its high exposure with the F-35, as well as for General Dynamics’ warships and ground vehicles, says the Bernstein team. Northrop Grumman appears well-positioned long-term, based on its lean toward new technologies, but there are some risks around the GBSD. Raytheon Technologies and Lockheed have the highest Middle East exposure among the primes, and military sales there may have some added risk.

“Democrats in both the House and Senate want restrictions on [Foreign Military Sales] in the wake of reports that the United Arab Emirates will be allowed to purchase 50 Lockheed Martin F-35s,” the Cowen Washington Research Group observed Nov. 4. “We do not believe a [Republican] Senate will support restrictions. If the sale is going to happen, it will need to be jammed through . . . before Biden takes office.”

Like the Obama administration, the Trump team provided growing support for new space technologies. “I believe space will continue to be very, very important,” says Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment. “I just had a briefing on a lot of [National Reconnaissance Office] projects we work on. And I’ll tell you, it is absolutely eye-watering the capability that is being launched here in the next couple of months. . . . I think we have irreversible momentum.”

During the Trump administration’s final weeks in office, Lord is working to create a trusted capital marketplace, strengthen the defense industrial base and work with Capitol Hill on new ways of purchasing software. The Defense Department is working closely with the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment to block adversaries such as China or Russia from purchasing companies that are critical to U.S. national technology initiatives, she told the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Ascend conference on Nov. 18.

Another focus for Lord’s team is rare earth minerals and microelectronics. The bulk of rare earth mineral processing occurs in China, and most microelectronics are manufactured outside the U.S.

Chris Brose, who served as policy director for the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), is advocating more radical change to scale up defense innovation, a priority of U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. “The question for the new administration is going to be: ‘How do you support that vision, and how do you kind of reshape the Air Force, reshape the Space Force and really realign the [national] defense program?’” asks Brose, who is now chief strategy officer for the defense industry startup Anduril.

Brose believes that to compete more effectively against advanced military challenges, the Pentagon must rethink how it harnesses new technologies, from the requirements process all the way through the acquisition process. Today’s military, he notes, is organized to purchase a platform it has seen in a presentation or read in a white paper. The goal should not be to spend a long time defining requirements and then pay a single vendor to build things such as small satellites, software-defined programs or unmanned systems.

One of the Air Force’s top modernization priorities is the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS). The challenge with an effort such as the ABMS is that the requirements and concepts of operation are unclear, Brose says, and ABMS demonstrations study different problems each year, making progress tough to discern.

Though the Trump administration has experienced extensive turnover among its civilian leadership, it made considerable progress in restoring aircraft fleet readiness. In 2018, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis—the first of five men in the military’s top civilian job in four years—mandated that all tactical aircraft fleets needed to be 80% ready for missions. The Navy drew on techniques from the commercial airline industry to meet that goal within about one year for its Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fleet.

The service has since applied the same techniques to improve the readiness of Boeing EA-18G Growlers, and it is beginning to expand the process to its Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeyes, with an eye toward the rest of its tactical aircraft, Rear Adm. Shane Gahagan, the Navy’s program executive officer for tactical aviation, said at Aviation Week’s Military Aviation Logistics and Maintenance Symposium on Nov. 17.

While Biden’s team will seek to build on that progress, his administration likely will take a markedly less confrontational approach with U.S. allies than Trump, who believes the U.S. has borne too much of the burden to defend Europe. As the Pentagon announced the withdrawal of 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany earlier this year, repositioning them around Europe, Trump placed the blame squarely on Germany, describing the nation as “delinquent” in failing to pay its fair share.

NATO members breathed a collective sigh of relief after Biden’s election, believing it will pave the way for a relaunch of transatlantic defense relations. But Biden is likely to maintain pressure on European countries to keep defense spending up in light of Russian and Chinese threats and to align with NATO’s call for members to spend 2% of their GDP on defense.

“Trump seized on the 2% and banged the table. . . . It is broadly true he got the Europeans to take seriously the demand that more should be spent on defense,” says Jonathan Eyal, an associate director at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. The cost of Trump’s approach, however, has been “very heavy,” he says, leading to a virtual collapse in the relationship between the U.S. and Germany. 

Less certain is how a Biden administration will deal with countries that appear to be undermining NATO values. Turkey’s oil and gas exploration in waters disputed by neighbor and fellow NATO member Greece have prompted regional tension, not to mention Ankara’s actions in Libya, Syria and, more recently, its support of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (AW&ST Oct. 12-25, p. 62). Turkey’s decision to recently test its S-400 ground-based air defense system purchased from Russia also remains a source of irritation for Washington.

The purchase of the S-400 prompted Washington to kick Turkey out of the F-35 program, but Trump opted not to invoke the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan despite pressure in the Senate.

“One can assume that the Biden administration would take the tougher line on Turkey,” Eyal says. “Erdogan is now part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen previously managed Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.

Michael Bruno

Based in Washington, Michael Bruno is Aviation Week Network’s Executive Editor for Business. He oversees coverage of aviation, aerospace and defense businesses, supply chains and related issues.

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.