Pentagon Eyes Windfall as Trump Seeks $750 Billion Defense Budget

The White House’s annual budget request would give the Defense Department even more than it hoped for.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to service members at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, on Feb. 28. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Westin Warburton)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to service members at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, on Feb. 28. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Westin Warburton)

The Pentagon is getting everything it asked for in the White House’s annual budget request—and then some.

U.S. President Donald Trump will submit a budget to Congress on Monday that includes a sizable $750 billion for fiscal year 2020 for national defense spending, of which $718 billion will go to the Pentagon, a U.S. defense official confirmed to Foreign Policy. That figure includes roughly $9 billion in “emergency” funds that will go toward hurricane relief and border security, the Office of Management and Budget said Monday—in other words, Trump’s long-promised border wall with Mexico.

America’s annual national defense budget funds the Department of Defense as well as nuclear elements of the Department of Energy, such as nuclear warheads and reactors used on Navy ships and submarines.

With this year’s budget request, which is subject to congressional approval, the Pentagon is actually getting even more than it had hoped for. While not a huge leap, the figure is more of an increase than budget planners initially expected, reflecting growth of 4.7 percent over last year’s top line. Defense officials had been planning for a $733 billion overall national defense budget, which would have been an increase of 2.4 percent over last year’s $716 billion top line.

The additional money will be sprinkled throughout the Defense Department’s coffers, which include overseas operations the four military services and other various agencies, the official said.

The hike in defense spending comes as part of a broader budget proposal to slash domestic spending, including significant cuts to the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Interior, State, and others, according to reports.

Still, this year’s budget proposal is a welcome surprise to military planners, as the president last year seemed to waffle between growing the defense budget and cutting it. In October 2018, Trump called for budget cuts of 5 percent across the board, which would have included a reduced defense budget. But then, in December, Trump reportedly agreed to then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s request for a $750 billion top line for defense.

One significant shift in this year’s budget request is a massive hike in a controversial war account that the White House’s own budget director, former Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney, has criticized as a “slush fund.” The fund, the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, is not subject to mandatory congressional spending limits. Of the total $718 billion request for the Defense Department, $165 billion will go to OCO and $9 billion to an additional emergency account, while $544 billion will go to the base defense budget, according to the official. CNN reported the breakdown March 8.

OMB confirmed Monday that the budget requests for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 will include sizable increases to OCO—$165 billion and $156 billion, respectively. After 2021, the last year of congressionally-mandated budget caps, DoD appears to begin phasing out the controversial fund, according to OMB budget documents. The amount is projected to drop to  $20 billion each in fiscal years 2022 and 2023, then $10 billion in fiscal year 2024.

Congress still has the final say on how much money goes toward defense, and it is not at all clear that lawmakers will approve the higher number. A Democratic-controlled House, in particular, is likely to oppose higher defense spending without an equal increase in nondefense spending—something fiscal hawks on both sides of the aisle will never go for.

And already, some Democrats have denounced Trump’s reliance on an OCO “gimmick” to circumvent the budget caps.

“If true, this is nothing more than a blatant attempt to make a mockery of the federal budget process, obscure the true cost of military operations, and severely shortchange other investments vital to our national and economic security,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith and House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, both Democrats, in a Feb. 25 statement about reports of the dramatic increase to OCO funding.

But others, such as Sen. James Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, are open to a massive war budget.

Even though this year’s request is a significant hike, it is not as big of a jump as Trump’s first budget submission, which increased defense spending 10.4 percent, from $634 billion in fiscal year 2017 to $700 billion in fiscal year 2018.

The details of the Pentagon’s budget ask have slowly trickled out over the past few weeks. The Missile Defense Agency will get $9.5 billion, a decrease from last year’s $9.9 billion despite Trump’s promise to build up America’s missile defense arsenal to counter new threats from Russia and China, FP first reported. Instead the Pentagon will ask for additional money for offensive systems, including $2.6 billion for hypersonic weapons.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported that $104 billion will go for research-and-development, $9 billion more than appropriated in fiscal 2019.

The Army is asking for $190 billion in total, an increase of $8 billion from the year before, according to Defense News. At the direction of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Air Force will ask to buy eight upgraded F-15 fighter jets from Boeing, as well as additional F-35s from Lockheed Martin. And the Navy will propose delaying the midlife refueling of the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier, essentially retiring it two decades early, in exchange for buying two new Gerald Ford-class carriers, which will come online starting in the late 2020s.

This story was updated March 11 to include additional numbers from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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