By LOLITA C. BALDOR and TARA COPP
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. military must be ready for possible confrontation with China, the Pentagon's leaders said Thursday, pushing Congress to approve the Defense Department's proposed $842 billion budget, which would modernize the force in Asia and around the world.
"This is a strategy-driven budget -- and one driven by the seriousness of our strategic competition with the People's Republic of China," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in testimony before the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense.
Pointing to increases in new technology, such as hypersonics, Austin said the budget proposes to spend more than $9 billion, a 40% increase over last year, to build up military capabilities in the Pacific and defend allies.
The testimony comes on the heels of Chinese leader Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow, which added to concerns that China will step up its support for Russian President Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine and increasingly threaten the West.
China's actions, said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "are moving it down the path toward confrontation and potential conflict with its neighbors and possibly the United States." He said deterring and preparing for war "is extraordinarily expensive, but it's not as expensive as fighting a war. And this budget prevents war and prepares us to fight it if necessary."
Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., pressed the defense leaders on Xi's meeting with Putin and its impact on U.S. competition with China, which he called "the elephant in the room." The U.S., he said, is "at a crucial moment here."
The growing alliance between China and Russia, two nuclear powers, and Xi's overtures to Putin during the Ukraine war are "troubling," Austin said.
He added that the U.S. had not yet seen China provide arms to Russia, but if it does, "it would prolong the conflict and certainly broaden the conflict potentially not only in the region but globally."
Milley, who will retire later this year, said the Defense Department must continue to modernize its forces to ensure they will be ready to fight if needed. "It is incumbent upon us to make sure we remain No. 1 at all times" to be able to deter China, he said.
Two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan eroded the military's equipment and troop readiness, so the U.S. has been working to replace weapons systems and give troops time to reset. It's paid off, Milley told Congress.
"Our operational readiness rates are higher now than they have been in many, many years," Milley said. More than 60% of the active force is at the highest states of readiness right now and could deploy to combat in less than 30 days, while 10% could deploy within 96 hours, he said.
Milley cautioned that those gains would be lost if Congress can't pass a budget on time, because it will immediately affect training.
Members of the panel, including Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., also made it clear that while they support the ongoing U.S. assistance to Ukraine, "the days of blank checks are over." And they questioned the administration's ultimate goal there.
Milley said the intent is to make sure that Ukraine remains a free and independent country with its territory intact, maintaining global security and the world order that has existing since World War II.