- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Despite months of promises of a “historic” spending boost to fund new planes, ships, armored vehicles, and adding tens of thousands of new soldiers, President Donald Trump’s first defense budget landed on Capitol Hill with a resounding thud late last month, falling tens of billions short of what many had anticipated. That’s in spite of huge cuts to the State Department and the social safety net billed, in part, as a downpayment on national defense.
“It’s a remarkable achievement to release a budget blueprint that truly pleases no one,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a budget expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
“This is not a rebuild, this is a repair,” Eaglen said. “This is not a historical buildup, it doesn’t buy much, it buys readiness and that’s perishable.”
A series of normally dry budget hearings on Capitol Hill this week will draw out the yawning gap between lawmakers and the White House on how much to spend on defense, and where that money to go. Few lawmakers have come out in favor of the Trump budget, while many ran to the nearest microphone to declare it dead on arrival.
Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tx.), dismissed the budget as “the Obama approach with a little bit more,” and along with his counterpart on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), proposed a 2018 defense budget of $640 billion, a number that an increasing number of lawmakers have rallied behind.
McCain has blasted the Trump budget as “inadequate to the challenges we face, illegal under current law and part of an overall budget proposal that is dead on arrival in Congress.”
The proposed $603 billion defense budget would still shift $54 billion from non-defense accounts to defense, blowing past the budget caps Congress put in place under the Budget Control Act in 2011 to constrain federal spending. The cap says Pentagon spending can’t go above $549 billion in 2018.
One way to get past the law is to put money into supplemental wartime spending accounts. The supplemental request for 2018 is $65 billion, but many expect that number to swell as lawmakers push to squeeze as much as possible into that account to get the buildup they want.
It’s unclear what the White House will make of that gambit, particularly as director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney is a longtime deficit hawk who, as a Congressman was an active opponent of the supplemental spending accounts.
One significant supporter of the budget is chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee Rep. Granger (R-Tx.), who late last month said the $603 billion was “reasonable” and didn’t see the higher budget number happening “unless something drops from heaven.”
“In light of the threats we see today, we need funding urgently,” Granger said in a statement to FP. “I join those who, like me, know the needs, and I hope we will reach the $640 billion number.”
Even if this spending plan is just a down payment, Pentagon officials concede that it’s difficult to say what future defense budgets might look like. Speaking with reporters after rolling out the Defense Department budget last month, John Roth, acting comptroller and chief financial officer, admitted that the numbers in the 5-year funding projection contained in the budget are simply placeholders while the Pentagon conducts several strategy reviews.
Roth said any analysis of the numbers as they stand now “is a relatively empty exercise.”
Those strategy reviews won’t be finished for months, and given that planning for the next budget normally begins in late spring, they likely won’t impact next year’s budget. That gives the Trump administration two more budget cycles for it’s promised increase in military spending.
That kind of uncertainty is “unsettling to the Pentagon,” because budget planners are unable to make long-term plans, said Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation.
Spoehr, a retired three-star U.S. Army general who was involved in the service’s budgeting process, said the Trump administration’s failure to get its political appointees in place across the Pentagon bureaucracy, will make the budget process even more difficult. “We’re missing the acquisition people and the service secretaries” who carry out an administration’s policy within the building, he said, and that means the planning for upcoming budgets might be rushed, and incomplete.
In the two weeks since the $603 billion budget was released, the armed services have submitted to Congress several lists containing over $30 billion in “unfunded priorities” they say are critical. Vice Adm. Tom Moore of the Naval Sea Systems Command also said earlier this month that the Navy is scrambling to keep older ships in service for as long as possible. “If it’s a ship and it’s floating today we’re taking a look at what it would take to extend the service life,” he said.
It is unclear what kind of input Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had in tweaking the budget proposal, which was put together by the Obama administration last year, and only amended by the Trump team to the extent that time allowed after the election. But several analysts said that Mattis, while not uninvolved in the process, has been consumed by weeks on the road in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and fighting long-running skirmishes with the White House over who will be on his staff.
As a result, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work — an Obama holdover who spearheaded many of former Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s technology and reform initiatives — did much of the work on the budget. The big increases in research and development spending “for me screams out that it came from the computer of Bob Work,” AEI’s Eaglen said.
Almost five months into the Trump administration, only the Air Force has a civilian secretary in place, with the Navy nominee awaiting a Senate hearing. Two Army candidates have dropped out of contention over financial and ethics issues.
The White House announced on March 16 that it intended to nominate Lockheed Martin executive Patrick Shanahan to replace Work, but no confirmation hearing has been set. Given the strategy reviews yet to be completed and the lack of political appointees at the Pentagon, the Trump defense buildup is on hold, with little indication that it will begin any time soon.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images