The Trump Administration Just Missed Its Best Shot at a Military Buildup

Sailors aboard USS New Mexico tie mooring lines after the submarine surfaced through the arctic ice at Ice Camp Nautilus, north of Alaska, in 2014.

U.S. Navy / Joshua Davies

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Sailors aboard USS New Mexico tie mooring lines after the submarine surfaced through the arctic ice at Ice Camp Nautilus, north of Alaska, in 2014.

In its first year, when big changes are easiest, the White House chose domestic cuts over national security.

Strengthening the U.S. military was one of the key themes of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. After saying that “our military is a disaster,” and “depleted,” he colorfully promised to make the U.S. armed forces “so big, so powerful, so strong, that nobody – absolutely nobody – is gonna mess with us.” Trump painted his plans in bold strokes: increasing the size of the Army to 540,000 soldiers, adding 20,000 Marines, bringing the Air Force to at least 1,200 combat aircraft, and increasing the Navy to a fleet of some 350 ships.

But his administration’s first budget request makes his actual priorities clear, and they do not include a major defense buildup. In pursuit of massive tax cuts, the 2018 budget relies on sleight of hand, with rosy GDP growth assumptions of 3 percent in 2021 and beyond, a full percentage point higher than the blue-chip and Congressional Budget Office forecasts; and a deliberate double-counting of the presumptive additional revenue generated by the tax cuts. It also cuts non-defense discretionary spending by 30 percent, over a decade, to a record low of 1.4 percent of GDP. On paper, if nowhere else, deficit hawks can point to a balanced budget within 10 years.

National security is an afterthought, playing fourth fiddle. Instead of repealing the Budget Control Act caps on defense, this budget would extend them six years, through 2027. It does call for raising them about 2 percent annually — but offsets these raises with harsh, unpopular, and unlikely cuts to non-defense discretionary spending.

It gets worse. This budget suggests phasing out the overseas contingency operations account, the “emergency supplemental” that has provided a good chunk of the military’s recent funding. By giving with one hand and taking away with the other, the Trump administration would actually depress defense spending by $3 billion over five years — from $668 billion in 2018 to $665 billion in 2022. Those figures aren’t adjusted for inflation, meaning that real defense budgets would fall further, to just 2.4 percent of GDP by 2027.

That’s hardly on track to fund a force-structure buildup that would require roughly $200 billion more, over five years, than envisioned in the Obama administration’s 2017 defense plan. Getting just one service, the Navy, to its promised force structure of 355 ships would need an extra $5.5 billion annually over current shipbuilding funding.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and defense hawks like Rep. Mac Thornberry and Sen. John McCain are holding out hope for a big boost to defense spending in 2019 and onwards, driven by the National Defense Strategy Review now underway. Small-print footnotes in the 2018 budget request allow for a glimmer of hope, noting that the prospective defense budget numbers don’t reflect a policy judgment about the right level of defense spending. Unfortunately, the deficit-hawk orthodoxies embraced in the request are incompatible with this real-world-driven approach to defense spending. Any increases to defense spending above the flat levels penciled into the budget would require either further impossible discretionary cuts, or abandoning a balanced budget within 10 years and embracing at least some measure of deficit spending – anathema to OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and the other GOP deficit hawks.

Forgoing asking for additional defense spending in its first federal budget, when a new administration has the greatest chance of making big course corrections, is a strategic mistake. Unless Congressional defense hawks and appropriators jettison the deficit-hawk priorities that the White House’s 2018 budget tightly embraces, there won’t even be a paper defense buildup.

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