In his address to Congress, President Donald Trump said he’s preparing “a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the Defense sequester, and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.” The day before the speech, White House officials said the administration planned to propose a “historic” $54 billion increase in the defense budget.
The administrations shopping list is a long one: more Navy ships, more troops, and a nuclear arsenal that is “top of the pack.” The proposed spending increase, however, isn’t as impressive as it sounds. A host of prosaic but urgent requirements would probably gobble up a good chunk—even if this money represented real, new dollars. Which it mostly doesnt.
Heres the truth: The Trump administration measured its $54 billion increase against budget caps put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act. But the Obama administration routinely spent above those caps, and it accounted for a large portion of that $54 billion in its last budget projection. “Just to keep what you have now, $35.5 billion are already spoken for,” says Katherine Blakeley, a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
It’s not going to be $54 billion for Defense. It’s more like $18 billion. Still, that’s the entire budget of NASA.
That leaves $18 billion. Now, for sure, to most other government agencies $18 billion would be an epic windfall. (Thats basically NASAs entire budget.) But in the Defense Department, it doesn’t go that far.
So how should the Defense Department spend their whole NASA’s worth of dough? Defense wonks have a few ideas.
The first thing on the wish list: Basic maintenance. Equipment doesn’t stop costing money the moment it rolls off a production line. Ships, aircraft, and vehicles all need to be maintained to stay in good working order. When the Budget Control Act’s caps came into force, maintenance took a hit, and so did the availability of equipment in need of it. Defense News reported in February that up to half of the Navy’s F/A-18 fighter jet fleet has been grounded due to maintenance delays, with a growing backlog of ships also waiting to be serviced.
Meanwhile, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria have further strained military equipment. Delays in the availability of newer systems like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are pushing the military to use increasingly older systems.
“The number one area I would devote my $18 billion to would be maintenance,” says Blakeley. “Specifically, depot maintenance for the Air Force, for Navy and Marine Corps aviation and for Navy ships.” Blakeley estimates satisfying all those needs would cost around $8 billion.
Training is another area where budget cutbacks have bitten deep. Air Force brass have repeatedly warned of a shortfall of 700 pilots due to difficulties in recruitment and retention. Meanwhile, pilots have had difficulty getting the training hours to advance in career and rank. I would tell the Vice Chiefs of Staff, get your training up, get your flight hours up,” says Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and a fellow at the Center for American Progress.
That ties back into maintenance. “The motivating factor most of the time is they aren’t flying enough because they don’t have enough planes in flying condition,” says Steve Bell, a former staffer on the Senate Budget and Appropriations committees and a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “If you just sit there and you don’t have enough training, you don’t have a plane to fly, there’s an erosion of morale.” Airlines offer better pay and plenty of flight hours, inducing pilots to simply leave the service.
If you just sit there and you don’t have enough training, you don’t have a plane to fly, there’s an erosion of morale.Steve Bell, Bipartisan Policy Center
Bolster maintenance and training, and you also bolster retention of hard-to-replace people in the armed services.
Still, spending on maintenance and training doesn’t increase end-strength—military parlance for people—or buy new equipment. Some defense advocates argue those priorities are just as important to start spending on now to deter potential enemies later.
The White House and Pentagon civilian leadership are coalescing around a shortsighted investment strategy that seeks to pour money into immediate readiness needs and far-off technological bets,” says Mackenzie Eaglen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in an email. In his January budget guidance, Defense Secretary James Mattis hinted as much, laying out a plan to prioritize readiness issues while putting off investing in new troops and gear.
Eaglen says that while short term needs like maintenance and training are important, “leadership should pursue a truly balanced investment strategy that includes modest, tailored end strength growth and, more importantly, which buys existing equipment and upgrades at higher rates.”
In the coming weeks, the Trump administration will spell out line by line how it plans to spend its proposed defense budget increase. Less obvious is how it plans to get Congress to approve the budget. With top Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham already calling Trump’s budget “dead on arrival,” the politics may be even more difficult to navigate than the math.