President Donald Trump’s $740.5 billion military budget, which he submitted to Congress on Monday, is only a hair larger than the current year’s budget, but it is still the largest since World War II (even adjusting for inflation), and it’s even more notable for what it emphasizes: building more nuclear weapons, preparing for exotic flavors of warfare, and expanding America’s global military presence.
This last feature seems contrary to Trump’s repeated promises to pull back from the world’s war-torn areas, and it thus raises the question—not for the first time—of how much the commander-in-chief reviews, much less directs, the slice of the federal budget that outspends all the other slices combined.
Proof of this contrast is revealed deep in the Defense Department’s online budget books, in the category called “Overseas Contingency Operations,” which is Pentagon lingo for war spending. The budget splits OCO, as the phrase is abbreviated, into three parts. For what is usually the main part, “Direct War Requirements,” the Pentagon is requesting $20.5 billion for fiscal year 2021. But it is requesting much more—$32.5 billion—for “Enduring Requirements,” which the fine print defines as “costs that will remain after combat operations end.” In other words, this is the cost of maintaining the bases, training, intelligence, and, in some areas, counterterrorism operations after the combat troops have gone back home.
For better or worse—whether or not Trump likes it or knows it—America’s military reach remains farflung.
The third part of OCO—taking up another $16 billion—is called “Base Requirements,” which is defined as “requirements financed in the OCO budget to comply with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019.” What this means in plain English can be summed up in one word: cheating. The Bipartisan Budget Act puts a limit on the size of the defense budget. “OCO Base Requirements” include a substantial number of programs—$16 billion worth—that exceed this limit and yet are not eliminated but are rather, in a brazen sleight of hand, simply transferred to the OCO category—even though they have nothing to do with overseas operations.
Trump’s Defense Department has no mandate to economize. In fact, judging from its budget books, the Pentagon’s managers did not eliminate a single weapon system. This degree of permissiveness may be unprecedented. (In last year’s almost equally bountiful budget, the managers found one weapon to get rid of.) At first glance, it may seem that they did cut $6 billion from programs scattered throughout the new defense budget. But upon scrutiny, it turns out that this money was merely transferred from the various services—mainly the Air Force—to the new branch of the armed forces that Trump has created and dubbed “Space Force.”
But nuclear weapons receive the biggest spending increase in the new defense budget—a 19 percent increase over the current year’s budget, bringing the total to $28.9 billion. This includes money for expanded weapons-production facilities as well as a new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile, a new long-range bomber, a new cruise missile, and a new nuclear-missile submarine. Most of these weapons aren’t due to be deployed or even built for another decade or so, though the first new submarine is scheduled to go into production next year, at a cost of $4.4 billion, in addition to several billion spent over the past few years for research, development, and initial production.
The rationale for this wave of new spending—which Hans Kristensen, of the Federation of American Scientists, calls “nukes on steroids”—is that America’s current missiles, bombers, and submarines are on the verge of obsolescence. The Pentagon’s budget book contends that there is “little margin” between the “end of life” for existing systems and the onset of their replacements. Hence, the big bucks have to be spent now.
This argument is at the very least exaggerated. Much of the current arsenal has been upgraded and modified time and again, for decades, through “service-life extension programs,” with no degradation. (An exception is the submarines, which are powered by nuclear reactors, the cores of which eventually burn out.)
At some point, the missiles and bombers may have to be replaced, as well, not merely modified. But then the questions should be asked: Do we really need as many of them as we have now? Is it wise to keep any land-based missiles—which are at once the most potent and the most vulnerable weapons, thus making them prime targets for a preemptive attack in a crisis? No one in the Trump administration and very few in Congress are asking these questions. Meanwhile, Trump is taking no action to extend New START—the strategic arms reduction treaty signed by President Barack Obama and then–Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2011—which expires in one year. If he doesn’t renew it, Trump—and President Vladimir Putin—will be able to expand their arsenals without limit, and without the treaty’s verification provisions, which give each side the right to inspect the other’s holdings.
Trump’s budget also requests $20.3 billion for what it calls “Missile Defeat and Defense.” (This category used to be called simply “Missile Defense,” but the word “Defeat” has been added to include technology for “left-of-launch” attacks, Pentagon-speak for using cybertechnology to prevent an adversary from launching missiles.) It also includes $3.2 billion for hypersonic weapons, even though the strategic rationale for those weapons hasn’t been fully spelled out and tests of their effectiveness have been delayed. (As John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org notes, these sorts of exotic programs “always have delays.”)
It is not at all clear whether this budget amounts to anything real. It will almost certainly be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, and for reasons more basic than any inference to be drawn from its details.
The White House’s own book-length summary of the overall budget reveal that the Trump administration is requesting $20 billion more for military programs than for all the other federal programs combined—and that this difference is projected to grow in the coming years. It also reveals that, whereas next year’s military budget will increase by $5 billion, federal student loan programs will be cut by $6 billion, Medicaid and children’s health programs will be cut by $8 billion, and cuts in welfare programs—which the White House labels “reforms”—will be cut by $20 billion.
None of this is likely to be accepted by the House—and possibly not entirely by the Senate.
The White House rationalizes these cuts on the need to cut the deficit, but even that depends on some extremely optimistic economic assumptions. For instance, the administration assumes gross domestic product will grow by 3.1 percent next year and in every year through 2025—quite a sharp increase from its current growth rate of 2.1 percent.
There is big fight looming on this most serious of subjects, the security of the nation. This enormous budget, Trump’s first move in the contest, suggests he’s not taking it seriously.