Trump faces hurdles to military build-up

Trump faces hurdles to military build-up

President TrumpDonald John TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA MORE faces significant hurdles to fulfilling his promise to bulk up the military even after his signing of a defense policy bill on Tuesday.

The first big challenge is to win funding for the policies he is enacting.

Unless he can secure an agreement from Congress to appropriate the policies, his new bill won’t become a reality.

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Further ahead, the administration has yet to finish its National Defense Strategy, which experts say is needed to help justify why the military needs more troops, aircraft, ships and other elements of a buildup.

“The big obstacle that remains is they need a budget deal, period,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Without something that significantly increases budget caps, there’s really no way to build up the military.”

A 2011 law called the Budget Control Act caps the base defense budget this year at $549 billion.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed a base defense budget of $603 billion.

At the time, defense hawks and analysts said that would not be enough to pursue the military buildup Trump outlined during the campaign, which included growing the Navy from 274 ships to 350, adding another 60,000 soldiers to the Army and giving the Air Force at least 100 more combat aircraft.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) signed into law this week authorizes nearly $700 billion in defense spending for the Pentagon and the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons programs to jump-start the buildup. That’s broken down into $626.4 billion for the base defense budget and $65.7 billion for a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.

The money would go toward adding 7,500 active-duty soldiers to the Army, 4,000 active-duty sailors to the Navy, 1,000 active-duty Marines and 4,100 active-duty airmen to the Air Force. The Army, Navy and Air Force would also see increases in the reserves and National Guard.

The NDAA also authorizes the Pentagon to buy 90 F-35s, 20 more than requested by the administration; 24 F/A-18s, 10 more than requested; and three littoral combat ships, two more than requested, among other equipment purchases.

But experts say it’s unlikely an eventual budget deal will be that high. Negotiators have been talking about a $54 billion increase above budget caps — in other words, the $603 billion that Trump first requested.

The House is set to vote next week on a Pentagon spending bill that’s closer to the NDAA level, but it is likely dead-on-arrival in the Senate. All but four Senate Democrats signed a letter this week opposing the plan; eight Democrats are needed in the Senate to pass it.

The passage of the NDAA shows an “appetite for more defense spending if you don’t have to make any difficult compromises,” said Katherine Blakeley, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “Republicans are going to have make difficult compromises because the Democrats in the Senate hold all the cards.”

If a budget deal doesn’t reach NDAA levels, lawmakers could try making up the difference using the Overseas account, which isn’t subject to budget caps.

But Fred Bartels, a defense budget analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that would be a “politically aggressive move.”

“It’s basically saying that you’re going take the ball home and you’re not playing any more,” he said of using the war fund to skirt a budget deal.

Further, he said, using the OCO money is no way to fund a buildup because that money is not meant to be long term.

“OCO is completely unpredictable,” he said. “You wouldn’t get a buildup. You would get a spurt.”

Harrison, at CSIS, also raised the prospect that a budget deal could only be for one year, which also prevents the long-term planning necessary for a significant military build up.

A budget deal on par with Trump’s initial request “could increase force structure slightly,” Harrison said, adding it could possibly buy “a few thousand” more soldiers and buy “a few extra” F-35s and F-18s. Anything more though, he said, “needs a sustained level of higher funding.”

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet Five things to watch for at Defense nominee's confirmation hearing MORE and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford have talked about needing 3 to 5 percent budget growth above inflation each year in order to grow the force.

Harrison said that’s affordable — if politicians are willing to make trade-offs.

“Is Congress willing to run a higher deficit to allow for greater defense spending? Is it willing to cut other parts of the budget? Is it willing to raise taxes? We already know answer to that one is no. I’m not sure [3 to 5 percent growth] is realistic politically,” he said. “The tax bill Republicans appear to be pushing through right now is adding $1.5 trillion to the deficit, and I can’t help but think politically that’s going to put downward pressure on the defense budget in the future.”

Blakeley likewise predicted the tax bill could be a “time bomb” for military spending.

In the mid-2020s, when the tax bill’s individual rate cuts expire, Congress will face significant pressure to extend them. That’s when some costly defense bills, such as for the Columbia-class submarine, are expected to come due.

One way to help sell a buildup to Congress is the National Defense Strategy (NDS). The administration is set to unveil its National Security Strategy on Monday, but a date for the release of the NDS has not been announced.

“They would need to make the case for why the Army needs to grow to the size it was at the peak of the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Harrison said. “What is it that we’re going to require our military to do.”

The Pentagon, he said, will need to come up with a rationale for having a 355-seat Navy.

“The National Defense Strategy also needs to fill in what is the right mix of capabilities needed in the Air Force. They’ve been vague on their plans for the Air Force so far,” he said.

Without the NDS, Bartels said, it’s hard to know what benchmark to measure to know whether Trump is achieving his goals. For example, Heritage recommends the military be able to fight two major wars at once — but the NDS might not necessarily have that same goal.

“It all depends on how fast you want to get there and what you’re calling there,” he said. The strategy is “the ruler that’s going to be available to measure future planning not just for external purposes but for internal as well.”