President Donald Trump’s request for a $750 billion military budget in fiscal 2020 is not only the largest ever but also the most undisciplined since the let-’er-rip days of the Reagan administration.
The most telling sign that the Pentagon’s auditors are on a long lunch break is this: The budget doesn’t cancel a single weapons system. It was bad enough that last year’s budget killed just one turkey: an upgrade of the Air Force’s 20-year-old JSTARS battle-management plane, which would have cost $7 billion over several years; then–Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis decided to order a new plane instead. But this year, acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan—a former Boeing executive who is still auditioning for the permanent post and, in the interim, has been careful to make no trouble—is letting the whole flock run wild.
Stipulating the need for a large defense establishment, it is absurd to imagine that there’s not a gram of waste to be tossed out. And this extravagance comes amid an overall federal budget that cuts—in some cases, slashes—every single agency except those related to national security (the Defense Department, the Homeland Security Department, the nuclear weapons branch of the Energy Department) and (the one anomaly) the Commerce Department.
Another line has been crossed: In the last several years, defense spending has nearly equaled the discretionary budgets for all programs other than defense combined. In this budget, it finally surpasses them.
Neither the Republican Senate nor the Democratic House are likely to let slide a budget that gives defense $750 billion—a 5 percent increase over last year and more than the military chiefs requested—while cutting Medicare by $850 billion, especially since the cut would be enacted in 2020, an election year.
The officials who crafted this budget all but admit that it’s dead on arrival. For much of this century, ever since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, presentations of the defense budget have been divided into “Base” (the routine requests for weapons, research and development, personnel, etc.) and “Overseas Contingency Operations,” also known as OCO (the costs of fighting wars). The Budget Control Act, passed by Congress in 2011, set a cap on the Base but, for obvious reasons, gave the Pentagon flexibility in managing OCO.
However, in this year’s budget, the Pentagon has come up with a third category: “OCO for Base,” which the comptroller’s report defines as supplies, equipment, and other defense items that it’s including in the OCO budget “in order to comply with the Base defense caps in current law.”
In other words, the Pentagon’s senior budget official is admitting that he’s cheating. It is as if a dietician set a cap on how many calories a patient can consume—only to hear the patient say that he ate an extra tub of ice cream after dinner, but that’s all right because he’s not counting it as “calories.”
The scale of cheating is pretty extravagant. The budget’s request for Overseas Contingency Operations—the legitimate expenses of fighting in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere—is $66.7 billion, a slight reduction from last year’s $68.8 billion. But the “OCO for Base” request is $97.9 billion.
Nor is this a one-time offense: The Pentagon plans to request another $94 billion for “OCO for Base” in next year’s budget.
There’s another new category: “Emergency” funding, amounting to $9 billion, which the fine print reveals will reimburse the Army’s cost of repairing the damage caused by hurricanes—and of building Trump’s cherished wall on the southern border.
Between “OCO for Base” and “Emergency,” it’s almost as if the comptroller is pointing Congress toward more than $100 billion that’s ripe for picking off.
There are specific programs also likely to raise controversy, notably $11 billion for missile defense (up from $9.9 billion last year, which was up from $8.5 billion the year before) and $6.5 billion for development of new nuclear weapons systems that won’t be ready for deployment until 2028 or 2030.
While no weapons programs are cut, at least one that has been criticized for several years—because of cost overruns or disappointing performance—is being scaled back. Last year, the Pentagon bought 93 F-35 stealth fighter jets at a cost of $11.6 billion. This year, it’s buying just 78 of the planes for $11.2 billion; it’s introducing, as a substitute, a modified version of the long-standing F-15 fighter (the F-15 EX)—eight of them—for $1.1 billion.
The budget is also requesting five extra ships (including an aircraft carrier that has been in construction for several years), 80 extra planes, and 26,000 extra active-duty service men and women. It’s also requesting $9.6 billion for offensive and defensive cyber programs, and $14.1 billion for space programs.
In short, this is a slightly blown-up version of the defense budget that we’ve been seeing for some years now—with a pin, helpfully attached, to pierce the balloon a little bit.
Rep. Adam Smith, the new Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has said he thinks the defense budget could be reduced to $600 billion with little harm to security, if cut smartly. He also wants to put a halt to new nuclear weapons.
With social, political, and fiscal pressures from all sides, there might actually be, for the first time in well over a decade, substantive debates over the defense budget.