Released in May, President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2018 defense budget increases funding for the U.S. Department of Defense while cutting funding for other critical programs in the discretionary budget. In analyzing whether the proposed budget truly enhances national security, however, it is important to keep the following three ideas in mind.
First, while the defense budget is the largest dollar amount associated with protecting U.S. national security, the Pentagon is not the only federal agency working to keep America safe, as the Center for American Progress pointed out in its report, “Integrated Power: A National Strategy for the 21st Century.” The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), for example, both play vital roles in protecting the country. State Department diplomats forge relationships and bonds of trust with U.S. allies and potential adversaries, while USAID provides humanitarian and development assistance that saves and improves the lives of millions of people around the globe. As U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has noted, not fully funding these areas makes new wars and conflicts more likely. And as former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell has said, the country is “strongest when the face of America isn’t only a soldier carrying a gun but also a diplomat negotiating peace, a Peace Corp volunteer bringing clean water to a village or a relief worker stepping off a cargo plane as flood waters rise.”
Second, several other federal agencies—even those with a primarily domestic focus, such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)—also play important roles in enhancing national security and keeping the economy strong. This is an important component of national security.
Third, providing the Pentagon with increased funding could lessen the incentives for its civilian and military leaders to manage the armed forces more effectively and efficiently.
Unfortunately, President Trump’s FY 2018 budget undermines all these principles. This column looks at why the proposed budget falls short of truly enhancing the nation’s national security.
The Trump defense budget does not comprehensively address national security
The budget proposes to increase the Department of Defense base budget by $54 billion above the Budget Control Act (BCA) to $575 billion and adds another $65 billion to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget. This brings the total defense budget for FY 2018 to $640 billion. Adding in the $28 billion in funds that other federal agencies, especially the U.S. Department of Energy, will spend on national defense in FY 2018, the total proposed defense budget will be $668 billion. This total does not include the approximately $85 billion in amortization payments for the military retirement and military retirees’ health care trust funds, which used to be part of the defense budget but are now paid for by the U.S. Treasury Department. Finally, the Trump budget does not provide the projections for defense spending over the next five years, which normally come with each year’s budget.
The Trump administration contends that this increase is necessary for two reasons. First, the administration argues that the BCA caps have resulted in $200 billion in defense cuts since 2013. However, this argument ignores the fact that about $180 billion—or half the OCO funding, which since FY 2013 has amounted to $372 billion—has been spent on base budget items, something the Pentagon controller has admitted. It also does not acknowledge that in FY 2016 and FY 2017, the Pentagon was granted another $50 billion in relief from the caps, bringing the total relief from the BCA caps to more than $200 billion.
Second, the Trump administration claims in its budget documents that the U.S. military is in terrible shape because its war fighting and readiness have been degraded. Therefore, the Defense Department needs this increase to reverse the degradation and restore readiness. This claim ignores the fact that—as Michael O’Hanlon and General David Petraeus pointed out in The Wall Street Journal—the United States already presently accounts for more than one-third of the world’s total military expenditures and currently spend three times as much on defense as China and 10 times more than Russia, its two main geopolitical rivals. And as O’Hanlon and Petraeus stated, the U.S. military does not have any readiness problems; in fact, it is “awesome.” A massive increase in defense spending is not necessary.
Moreover, the president’s budget proposes to spend some of the increased funds on items that will not increase national security. For example, President Trump plans to triple spending on the nuclear capable Long Range Standoff Weapon and to increase spending on the B-61 tactical nuclear weapon by 30 percent. As the CAP report, “Setting Priorities for Nuclear Modernization,” made clear, these two programs will together cost about $15 billion and are not only unnecessary but also increase the probability of a nuclear conflict.
The budget also increases the size of the active duty ground forces by approximately 30,000 men and women, at a cost of more than $6 billion in FY 2018 alone. The administration is proposing this increase even though it is opposed to sending large numbers of ground troops into other countries, preferring instead to rely primarily on air power and special forces.
And the administration continues to buy F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for the U.S. Navy even though the service would prefer to buy more FA-18/E/F’s, which it can get for half the price. The administration also proposes spending more than $1 billion on another Littoral Combat Ship despite the fact that policymakers such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) have called it one of the most egregious examples of waste at the Pentagon.
The budget sacrifices diplomacy efforts and international stability
The administration compounds the budget’s problems by paying for its unnecessary increase in defense spending through significant cuts in many areas of the nondefense portion of the discretionary budget.
For example, the Trump budget reduces the international affairs budget by $19 billion, or 32 percent, to $40.1 billion; the National Science Foundation budget by 11 percent, or $766 million; and the National Institutes of Health budget by $5.8 billion, or 22 percent. It also eliminates two export promotion agencies—the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency—eliminates funding for PBS, and cuts the Defense Nonproliferation Account by $147 million, or 7.4 percent. These reductions will make it more difficult for the United States to conduct the diplomacy necessary to prevent having to use military force to deal with security threats; to fund international groups like the International Atomic Energy Agency, which inspects nuclear weapons around the globe; and to conduct scientific research that will enable the military to maintain its technological edge over its competitors.
These reductions will cut the number of countries receiving U.S. economic development assistance by 37, thus increasing the probability that these nations will become failed states and havens for terrorists. The reductions also weaken the United States’ ability to respond to disease outbreaks around the globe. This will contribute to global instability and undermine the health of many Americans, thus limiting the pool of those qualified to meet the high standards necessary to join the armed forces. These reductions will also threaten U.S. national security by cutting research and programming related to climate change, which U.S. military leaders believe is a threat to national security. The reductions will also eliminate funding for PBS—which General Stanley McChrystal claims will make the nation less safe, smart, and strong—and harm thousands of workers in the United States who make a living by exporting goods to other nations.
The defense budget does not support efficiency at the Pentagon
In addition to being unnecessary, the extra money the budget provides to the Department of Defense will undermine the people trying to get the Pentagon to operate more efficiently. In late 2013, for example, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recognized that the Pentagon budget could not continue to grow at the same rate that it had before the Budget Control Act was passed, as it had between 2001 and 2012. He asked the Defense Business Board to analyze administrative costs. Finished in late 2015, the board’s study showed that the Pentagon could save $125 billion over five years by trimming its back-office personnel, which currently exceeds one million people supporting an active duty force of 1.3 million. Rather that dealing with the problem, however, Hagel’s successor fired the board’s head and tried to bury the report, most likely fearing it would undermine the case for increasing defense spending.
The Pentagon is also not dealing effectively with cost overruns and delays on its major weapons programs. In 2015, a report by Deloitte found that the combined cost overruns for major acquisition programs totaled $468 billion. For example, the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford, from which Trump laid out his case for increasing spending on defense, came in two years late and 50 percent over budget. Finally, the Pentagon is still the only federal agency that has not yet passed the federally mandated audit.
As Congress debates the defense and nondefense portions of the discretionary federal budget, it should keep all of these facts in mind. Doing so will help improve U.S. national security.
Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.