The coming military buildup is looking smaller than promised.
The Trump administration is proposing $3.6 trillion in Pentagon spending over the next five years, a budget that defense officials said positions the military to better compete with China and Russia.
But despite the sharp defense spending increases proposed on Monday, the massive military buildup of warships and combat aircraft promised by President Trump on the campaign trail still hasn’t materialized.
Instead, David Norquist, the Pentagon’s CFO and comptroller, said the budget proposal starts digging the military out a $406 billion hole — “in lost readiness, maintenance and modernization” — created by federal budget caps in recent years. If the Pentagon’s budget had grown at the rate of inflation since fiscal 2011, it would be on par to what the administration is requesting in 2019, he said.
“It is a sign of how deep the hole is that we are in that it takes this big of an increase just to get the department’s budget back to where inflation alone would have put us,” Norquist said during a briefing on Monday.
The absence of a massive buildup is a signal that Trump’s national security team is focusing on building the capability of the military rather than just focusing on its size. That means a mix of buying new weapons while increasing the lethality of current forces and their existing weapons, a top priority of Defense Secretary James Mattis.
The exact size of the budget increase remains hard to measure. Last May, four months after Trump took office, the Pentagon requested a $639 billion budget for 2018. It then made additional requests, for hurricane relief in November and missile defense in January. In December, lawmakers authorized a total of $700 billion, but no appropriations bill has been passed to cut the check, although one is expected by next month.
Fo 2019, the Pentagon is asking for $686 billion, including $617 billion in the base budget and $69 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations fund — once known as the emergency supplemental. When nuclear weapons funding within the Energy Department’s budget is included, the defense request totals $716 billion.
“Even this considerable increase in resources — and it is considerable — is not going to allow the department to approach the campaign-promised force structure numbers that then-candidate Trump put out there,” said Susanna Blume, a former Pentagon official who is now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “In my view, nor should it.”
“In an environment where we’re trying to shift focus to strategic competition with China and Russia, it makes very little sense … to focus on number of soldiers and number of ships and number of aircraft without carefully thinking through the capabilities of those ships and those aircraft and how you’re going to employ ground forces in a [contested] environment,” she said.
“Will this budget make good on the campaign promises? No,” she said. “Is that a bad thing? Also no.”
Trump’s defense team wants the Pentagon budget to grow to $701 billion in fiscal 2020 and reach $742 billion by 2023. This would mean annual increases of about 2 percent, roughly the likely rate of inflation — in other words, no real growth after 2019.
The 2019 budget request proposes increased spending for weapons, research and people. Specifically (when compared to Trump’s fiscal 2018 request), procurement of new weapons is up $18.8 billion, or 14.9 percent, amd research funding is projected to rise $17.8 billion or 23.8 percent.
The increase in research-and-development funding — budget accounts that took hits numerous times in recent years — could signal investment in the future and the great power competition the Pentagon is preparing to combat, according to Bloome.
“Investments in [research and development] are a sign of more to come because if you’re starting new programs, that’s where you do it,” said Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
While the numbers are not as large as Trump campaigned on, “they’re going to invest in new and modernized capabilities, which those investments should start in R&D,” Harrison said.
“The previous administration…invested a lot of what I will call seed corn in developmental programs and prototypes,” Bloome said. “It’s going to take a lot of money to turn those experiments into actually fielded capabilities.”
The budget invests $13.7 billion in projects that include hypersonics, autonomy, cyber, space, directed energy, electronic warfare, and artificial intelligence.
But other major proposed increases seem to be shrinking. Despite calling for 355 ships, the Navy is requesting funding for 10 new ships, just one more than it asked Congress to approve in 2018.
Up front, this year’s budget request seems to add a decent bump to total end strength: The services propose adding 24,100 active-duty personnel over their requested 2018 levels. But Congress laid out a moderately more ambitious growth plan with the authorization bill it passed in December, and this budget submission continues down that path. Everyone is adding a couple thousand active-duty personnel over that bill, except for the Marines.
- Last year, the Army requested 476,000 active-duty; the NDAA authorized another 7,500, and now in 2019 the department is asking for 4,000 on top of that, for a total of 487,500 soldiers. It’s growth, but not a large jump toward Trump’s stated goal of a 540,000-strong Army.
- The Navy asked for — and was granted — 327,900 sailors in 2018. In 2019, it wants to add 7,500 for a total of 335,400 active-duty service members.
- The Marines asked for just an extra 100 troops over their 2018 authorized end strength of 186,000. It’s nowhere near the annual 3,000-person growth the Corps says it needs to reach its force structure goals, but it’s an intentional move to prioritize readiness of existing Marines first.
- After getting 4,000 more active-duty personnel in last year’s authorization, the Air Force is requesting another 4,000 for a total of 329,100 in 2019.
Last year, the $9.9 billion the Pentagon requested for missile defense wasn’t enough — just two months into the fiscal year, the administration sent an emergency request to Congress for an additional $4 billion. (Congress granted it). This year, they’re starting higher. In 2019, the Pentagon wants $12.9 billion for missile defense, the bulk of which ($9.9 billion) will go to the Missile Defense Agency.
A few items that will fund:
- Developing an additional missile field in Alaska and upping the number of Ground-Based Interceptors to 64 by 2023
- Buying 82 THAAD interceptors at the price tag of $1.1 billion
- Developing new technologies, including “discrimination improvements, multi-object kill vehicle technology, hypersonic threat missile defeat, and high-powered lasers.”
A 2.6 percent increase in military basic pay — if granted, it would be the largest pay increase for troops in nine years. Last year, the Pentagon asked for a 2.1 percent raise, but Congress bumped it up to 2.4 percent. Check out the history of military and civilian pay raises, here.