Trump’s defense spending boom that wasn’t


President Trump’s long touted promises for more robust military spending fell short in his first government-wide budget, which disappointed Democrats and Republicans alike, according to defense analysts and consultants.

The fiscal 2018 budget, released Tuesday, calls for $603 billion in the base budget for defense and national security issues, about $54 billion above a ceiling set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, but only $18 billion more than was planned for this year by President Obama.


Vice President Mike Pence touted the plan at the U.S. Naval Academy commencement ceremony on Friday, boasting that Trump “laid out one of the largest increases in defense spending since the days of President Ronald Reagan.”

“President Donald Trump and I will not rest, we will not relent until we rebuild our military, restore the arsenal of democracy, and ensure that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guard have all the resources that you need to accomplish your mission and come home safe,” Pence said. “That is our pledge to each of you.”

Not everyone views the defense spending plan so positively. Experts say the $18 billion extra will do little to help bolster Trump’s campaign trail promises to “avoid and prevent conflict through our unquestioned military strength.”

Among his pledges, Trump included a 350-ship Navy, a 540,000 active duty Army force, and dozens of new fighter aircraft for the Air Force. Such new military spending requires roughly $80 billion to $90 billion a year, according to experts.

In comparison, Trump’s budget only promises funds to keep the Army at 476,000 active duty soldiers, plans for eight new ships – the same number Obama forecast – and also falls short on extra equipment.

“It was mildly surprising that the Defense Department didn’t buy any new equipment. They chose to put it all in operations and personnel and maintenance,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “I thought there would be more of a mix, honestly.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) slammed the budget as inadequate and “dead on arrival” after its release.

McCain, along with his House counterpart Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), has vocalized the need for $640 billion in spending for fiscal year 2018.

And House Armed Services Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said that “despite having extra time to prepare because he delivered the budget some three months later than legally required, the president has not given us a solid document on which one can plan for the national defense.”

Defense industry insiders have said Trump’s “historic” increase looks just like another Obama defense budget request. If passed, the budget would only represent the ninth largest increase for the Pentagon in the past 40 years, according to Todd Harrison, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

There is also wide speculation the defense plan is the work of White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who defended the budget to reporters Monday as one that would help meet Trump’s vision.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said it’s unlikely Trump even knows the details of his defense request or the ways it does not follow through on his promises.

“To be fair, $54 billion is a lot of money relatively speaking. But in defense today, the priorities are readiness, people and facilities. And that money goes fast. It does not yield the kind of kick-the-tire results as investments in equipment,” Eaglen said.

One industry consultant echoed that sentiment.

“Trump isn’t doing what he said he would because he doesn’t know any better,” the consultant told The Hill. “He thinks he’s providing a big defense increase when he’s not. The people in his inner circle don’t understand the mechanics and the numbers, and Mick Mulvaney is totally pulling the wool over his eyes.”

A good or bad perspective on the budget, another defense consultant said, lies in where the defense spending baseline is set. When viewed as an increase over 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) spending caps, the numbers seem significant. But when compared with previous administration plans, the numbers add up to only three percent more, which is not nearly as impressive.

“I truly believe Mulvaney sold this to Trump as a huge increase,” he said. “Fifty-four billion over the BCA numbers would in itself be a big increase, but it’s all where you start your baseline.”

The consultant added that the defense industry is “very disappointed,” while fiscal conservatives and the anti-defense crowd “are looking at this as a very big increase.”

Spoehr added that it’s likely people near Trump “probably were persuasive that they thought it was maybe at least as important to balance the budget [as] it was to build up defense.”

“My guess is – and speculation is he didn’t get much influence on setting the $603 billion number – given that he’s only going to get $18 billion more than President Obama had planned for, he probably chose within that $18 billion to focus on immediate readiness which includes paying the personnel, the spare parts the training, etc.,” Spoehr said.

Eaglen added that Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress behind closed doors that the $54 billion over BCA caps doesn’t buy a rebuild of the military, only a repair.

“Why $54 billion and not $100 billion, then – closer to the McCain/Thornberry levels? That is all Mulvaney,” she told The Hill. “He told President Trump, essentially, that was all the nation could afford. Secretary Mattis will have to personally go to the mat in fiscal year 2019 debates if he wants to reverse this trend.”

Pentagon officials, meanwhile, defended the budget as “not inconsequential.” More money would show up in the fiscal year 2019 request, according to John Roth, acting undersecretary of Defense comptroller and CFO.

“We’re not going to solve the readiness problem in one year. We’re not going to modernize in one night,” Roth said. “All of this is a multi-year commitment to defense spending, more than anything else.” 

Tags Adam Smith Donald Trump John McCain Mike Pence

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