President Trump’s initial budget proposal isn’t enough to expand the military in the way he proposed.
Trump campaigned on the need to add tens of thousands more troops to the Army and Marine Corps, field a Navy with 350 warships or more and also to upgrade the Air Force. The $54 billion he’s seeking to increase the Defense Department budget this year would represent a funding boost — but not one that would pay for an expansion on the scale Trump endorsed.
In fact, not only might Trump’s proposed Pentagon budget not expand American power but it falls short of plugging some gaps in the current force, critics say.
“The administration will have to make clear which problems facing our military they are choosing not to fix,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who issued a statement faulting the White House’s “low budget number.”
Thornberry, whose committee oversees the military and who is a top advocate for the defense establishment, said he thought increasing military spending should not be part of the politics of cuts to other functions of government.
“We cannot make repairing and rebuilding our military conditional on fixing our budget problems or on cutting other spending,” he said. “We owe it to the men and women who serve and to the American people to protect our nation’s security under all circumstances.”
Thornberry’s counterpart in the Senate, Arizona Republican John McCain, complained that Trump’s proposal is “a mere 3 percent above President Obama’s defense budget, which has left our military underfunded, undersized and unready.”
Actually getting the money to the Pentagon depends on the approval of Congress, which would also have to waive or lift Obama-era spending limits. And the practical effects would depend on how any additional money was directed.
The Navy, for example, typically gets about $18 billion per year for the account it uses to build ships. If Trump’s proposed $54 billion were theoretically split three ways, one for each of the military departments within the Defense Department, that works out to an $18 billion boost for the entire Department of the Navy, including the Navy and the Marine Corps. The Navy Department requested nearly $165 billion in its most recent budget.
The White House could propose specific priorities when it releases its full budget, and supporters argue that Trump must start somewhere.
“The president’s budget is a down payment on fixing the problem,” said Kim McIntyre, a spokeswoman for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that praised the budget guidance. “There is bipartisan recognition that the military is already in a readiness crisis with too many, ships, planes and vehicles unavailable for the force.”
The deputy chiefs of the military services warned Thornberry’s committee about this problem earlier in February. For example, Assistant Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters said about 80 percent of the Marines’ aviation units are short the minimum number of aircraft they need for training or deployments. A lack of spare parts and the need for repairs has taken hundreds of aircraft, from helicopters to fighters, out of action.
At the same time, however, the Marines are fielding advanced, brand new warplanes, including the F-35B Lightning II fighter and the MV-22 Osprey transport. Tens of thousands of American troops continue to deploy overseas for the fight against the Islamic State or the Taliban and to take assignments around the globe.
The vast scale of the U.S. military means it includes both extremes of advanced and antiquated hardware; some units in combat daily, others unready to deploy. The Air Force flies B-52 bombers built in the early 1960s on missions today over Syria attacking the Islamic State.
Pentagon leaders say they still wield the most powerful military force on Earth. Trump focuses on what he calls the “depletion.”
“This budget will be a public safety and national security budget,” Trump told governors at the White House on Monday. “And it will include a historic increase in defense spending to rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America at a time we most need it.”
White House officials say that Trump would cover the additional Pentagon funding by cutting the nondefense budgets of other Cabinet departments, and would also reduce spending on foreign aid. But those details are not yet clear and precise numbers won’t be made public for several more weeks.
Trump has not released a detailed proposal for how he would expand the military beyond the general statements he has made supporting a larger force and more nuclear weapons. That means there is no solid estimate for the costs involved above the current Pentagon budget, but based on the costs of the current force, the price tag would very likely reach many more billions of dollars.
Past administrations have released a future-years defense plan along with each new budget submission that signaled what they intended to propose beyond the immediate budget they were releasing. If Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis issue one when this year’s budget comes out, it could include more clues about a potential big expansion to the military.
But Trump has already shown his commitments are not condition-free. In fact, he has hectored aerospace titans Lockheed Martin and Boeing over what he called the unreasonable costs to some of their ongoing programs — Lockheed’s F-35 and Boeing’s replacement for the Air Force’s presidential aircraft.
The Washington defense establishment is waiting to see whether that scrutiny continues — or expands.