After receiving a classified report from the China Task Force, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued an internal directive to the Pentagon on Wednesday for the United States military to “laser focus efforts to address China as the nation’s number one pacing challenge.”

The China Task Force was set up earlier this year to address the “near-peer” competition with Bejing.

“The efforts I am directing today will improve the department’s ability to revitalize our network of allies and partners, bolster deterrence, and accelerate the development of new operational concepts, emerging capabilities, future force posture, and a modernized civilian and military workforce,” Austin said in a statement.

When pressed by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AR), if indeed China was the Pentagon’s primary focus or whether the department has been distracted by talk of climate change, Austin was adamant. 

“The most significant military threat that we’re focused on — and you’ve heard me say this probably 100 times, senator — is China,” Austin said.

During his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Austin said, “The Department [of Defense] must be ready to meet and keep pace with our competitors and, if necessary, to fight and win the next war, not the last one.”

Austin’s comments were reiterated by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley.

“From a strictly military standpoint, I think China is the Number One threat as we go forward,” said Milley.

Austin also testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee concerning the $715 billion Defense Department budget. The secretary said that the budget focuses on “matching the pacing challenge that we clearly see from the People’s Republic of China.” The budget includes “more than five billion dollars for the Pacific defense initiative” of an overall total of $66 billion for the U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific region in 2022.

Is the Pentagon Actually Focusing on China?

Chinese troops assemble in formation at the Chinese base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.

Despite Secretary Lloyd’s claims, the administration is sending mixed signals. As Defense One’s Tara Copp first reported, DoD’s budget still shows a priority toward the Middle East despite the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan. 

“To support Operation Inherent Resolve and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, the Army is asking for $10.4 billion; the Navy seeks about $5.6 billion — $859 million of which is for flight operations and $2.9 billion is for ship operations. The Marine Corps is asking for $887 million and the Space Force seeks $75 million.” So, with five billion dollars towards the Pacific defense initiative, the Pentagon doesn’t exactly appear “laser-focused” on China.

How Much Will the US Really Support Afghanistan in the Future?

The U.S. is withdrawing 3,500 troops from Afghanistan but is increasing its strength in Iraq and Syria by 3,000 troops. There are currently 43,900 troops in Kuwait, Qatar, the U.A.E., and other Middle East countries to support Middle East operations.

Utah Reservists deploying to Middle East
Utah Reservists deploying to the Middle East. (Photo by Sgt. Kayla Benson/DVIDS)

Austin and the Pentagon are asking for $3.3 billion to continue training Afghans. Most of the amount is earmarked for the Afghan Special Operations Forces — although right now no one knows where that training is to take place. Rumors are that the U.S. and the EU are looking at possible candidate sites in Europe.

Perhaps the most intriguing development regarding Afghanistan is that the Air Force is requesting about $10 billion to continue operations and provide “over the horizon” support for the Afghan security forces after U.S. troops leave. However, when Austin was asked if the U.S. would conduct airstrikes if the Taliban threatened large cities, he told lawmakers that the U.S. wouldn’t commit to doing so after the U.S. withdraws from the country. 

“We continue to provide support to the Afghan security forces as we retrograde,” he said. “Once we have completed our retrograde, that will be very difficult to do because our capabilities will have diminished in [the] country.”

Austin stated that the counterterrorism effort in Afghanistan, to prevent future attacks against the U.S. homeland, is complete and now the focus was to get the troops out of the country. “Going forward, in terms of our [counterterrorism] efforts, those CT efforts will be focused on those elements that can possibly conduct attacks against our homeland,” he said.

With so much budget and so many troops focused on the Middle East it will be very difficult for the Pentagon to shift its focus on China. And with Africa coming to the forefront as a security concern, the Pentagon is going to be stretched very thin in the age of frozen budgets.