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Pentagon Wins as Trump Readies a $716 Billion Budget Request

Updated on
  • Big increase for Pentagon would deepen the U.S. deficit
  • Mattis has raised alarm over U.S. ‘competitive edge’ eroding

President Donald Trump will propose $716 billion in defense spending in his fiscal 2019 budget request, a 7.2 percent from his request for this year that backs the Pentagon’s push for a major buildup, a U.S. official said.

The funding would include $597 billion for the Defense Department’s base budget, with the rest going for its war-fighting account and to other government programs such as the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons program, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of the release of Trump’s second proposed budget next month.

The amount is a sharp increase from the $668 billion total Trump proposed last year for fiscal 2018 and also offered as a placeholder for fiscal 2019. Currently, the Pentagon is operating under stopgap funding at fiscal 2017 levels, which totaled $634 billion. The plan, reported earlier Friday by the Washington Post, represents a victory of defense hawks over those trying to constrain deficit spending.

The U.S. official confirmed Trump’s next proposed budget will include major increases on procurement spending over the $124 billion sought this year.

Mattis’s Push

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has pushed for a jump in defense spending to match the breadth of the new National Defense Strategy he released this month.

Citing Russian and Chinese military ambitions, Mattis said in a Jan. 19 speech presenting the strategy that “everything we do in the department must contribute to the lethality of our military” because “our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare -- air, land, sea, space and cyberspace -- and it is continuing to erode.”

“No enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the U.S. military” than the “budgetary confusion” imposed by congressional budget caps and by stopgap spending measures passed by Congress, Mattis said in the speech.

Related story: Terror Loses Top Spot on U.S. Threats as Russia, China Rise

Ultimately, Trump’s proposal will be measured by the amount it exceeds the caps in the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Unless Congress waives the budget limits, as it’s done three times in the past, the cap for fiscal 2019, which begins Oct. 1, is $563 billion for defense-related spending, including $534 billion for the base defense budget.

War-Fighting Fund

The official said more than $90 billion of Trump’s budget proposal would come from the war-fighting fund -- known as Overseas Contingency Operations -- that’s exempt from caps. While the fund is supposedly for pressing war needs, it’s often used as a tool to bulk up overall defense funding. Trump’s war-fighting budget for the current year includes $10 billion for weapons acquisition.

Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an email that a war-fighting fund in that range would be “big news.”

The proposed defense budget, which Harrison said amounts to an increase of about 5 percent after adjusting for inflation, tracks bipartisan negotiations taking place in Congress on a two-year budget deal. Republicans and Democrats are seeking agreement on a $70 billion increase to defense budget caps in 2018 and 2019 paired with increases for domestic spending.

High-End Conflicts

Combined with the recently passed tax-cut package, the defense increases are likely to make it difficult for the White House to produce a 10-year budget blueprint that balances over a decade, which has been a goal of White House budget director Mick Mulvaney.

Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Meghan Burris declined to comment.

The funding request is consistent with Mattis’s strategy which focuses on “high-end conflicts and identifies several technologies that need to be enhanced,” said Mark Cancian, a defense strategy analyst who’s also with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is aware of the proposed numbers.

“That would argue for a large increase in acquisition, procurement and R&D,” he said. The strategy also signals that adding military personnel “will be a lower priority, so there will be less budget pressure on acquisition,” Cancian said in an email.

— With assistance by Roxana Tiron, and Jennifer Jacobs

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