U.S. Department of Defense in Focus: Budget Priorities and Questions for New Nominees

By Bill Beaver, Christine ParthemoreErin Sikorsky

On April 9, the Biden administration announced its topline budget priorities for the U.S. government, including for the Department of Defense (DoD). DoD funding will increase by 1.6%, which ends up being a slight decrease when adjusted for inflation. Specifics will be announced in the coming months. For now, the White House emphasized several high priority areas for increased investment, including top issues we work on at the Council on Strategic Risks such as biological threats, climate change and nuclear weapons matters. In high-level guiding documents, the Biden Administration has consistently signaled the importance of taking action on these issues. 

In addition, the administration announced several nominations for key positions, including Christine Wormuth, who – if confirmed – would be the first woman to serve as Secretary of the Army. With Senate nomination hearings approaching, there will be an opportunity to better understand how top DoD officials view these fundamentally crucial areas. As such, we offer important questions these new nominees should be asked during their confirmation hearings on climate security, biological threats, and nuclear risks.

For Secretary of the Army: Christine Wormuth

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the Army’s readiness and ability to operate effectively. The Army is also the Executive Agent for significant investments in countering biological risks. What investments in research and development are needed to prepare the Army for the next pandemic? 
  • The COVID-19 pandemic and its global effects may cause state and non-state actors to more deeply consider deliberate use of infectious diseases as a weapon.  Meanwhile, over the last decade, DoD biodefense spending targeted at countering biological weapons has shrunk by a third. What role can the  Army play in restoring the U.S. military’s ability to deter, prepare for and respond to biological weapons attacks?  
  • The Army took a welcome step last year in releasing the Army Climate Resilience Handbook and Army Climate Assessment Tool in response to Congressional requirements. How do you plan to ensure these outputs from these tools are operationalized? Do you support expanding the effort to overseas bases, and sharing the methods with allies and partners?

Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment: Michael Brown 

  • The biological threat portfolio of DoD’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program was slashed just before and during a historic pandemic. At the same time, DoD is reorganizing its early warning work regarding biological threats. If confirmed, would you reinvigorate these programs—which are an invaluable national asset for addressing biological threats of all kinds and critical to force readiness—and help maximize their potential?
  • There are so many high-potential technologies to counter biological threats or reduce carbon emissions through the deployment of clean energy. DoD investments may play an important role. Over the last few years, the DoD has been experimenting with new means of engaging the private sector, including through the Defense Innovation Unit and the Trusted Capital Marketplace. How do you see these or other new tools being applied to attract partnerships to meet DoD needs in climate security and countering biological threats?
  • If confirmed, you will sit on Secretary Austin’s Climate Working Group. In addition, you will oversee the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment, and will therefore have a major role in implementing the President’s vision and the Secretary’s guidance. What is your understanding of the ways that climate change poses a risk to national security and the Department’s responsibility to prepare for and prevent its impacts? How do you believe the Department should be incorporating this risk into its risk analyses, strategy development and planning guidance? 

 Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security: Ronal Moultrie 

  • For many years, across multiple administrations of both parties, the Intelligence Community has identified climate change as a risk to national security and to international stability. What is your understanding of the ways that climate change poses a significant risk to national security and the Department’s responsibility to prepare for its impacts? What is your understanding of the role the USD(Intelligence) has in assessing this risk and incorporating it into DoD risk analyses, strategy development and planning guidance?  
  • As President Biden noted in his very first National Security Memorandum, “The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is a grave reminder that biological threats, whether naturally occurring, accidental, or deliberate, can have significant and potentially existential consequences for humanity.” If confirmed, would you prioritize tracking these threats, especially those that could be of the highest consequence such as engineered biological weapons? 

Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller): Michael McCord

  • The nuclear modernization bow wave you predicted is upon us because neither Presidents Obama nor Trump made hard choices. It is important now to prioritize and balance smarter modernization with maintenance of strong deterrence. If confirmed, will you help pursue a balanced approach? 
  • The biological threat portfolio of DoD’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program was slashed just before and during a historic pandemic. If confirmed, would you help ensure this program, which is an invaluable national asset for addressing biological threats of all kinds and critical to force readiness, has the resources it needs?

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities: Mara Karlin

  • In the Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, President Biden calls on the Department of Defense to integrate climate risk analysis into the National Defense Strategy. Given the lead role you will play in shaping that document, how do you envision integrating climate change considerations into strategy development? What tools and capabilities do you think DoD needs to develop to better assess and manage climate security risks?
  • The DoD proposed significant cuts in biodefense in the FY21 budget, justifying these changes as  supporting the National Defense Strategy. Overarching guidance the Biden Administration has provided indicates this is a much higher priority. At the same time, DoD has truly unique assets and capabilities that have led to breakthroughs in countering biological threats, which can be better leveraged for defense forces and the nation. What shifts in the next National Defense Strategy are necessary to ensure that DoD continues to invest in and leverage these assets fully?

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