How Much Will Donald Trump Really Spend on Defense?

November 10, 2016

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Defense industry stocks are soaring in reaction to a clean Republican sweep of the executive and legislative branches. But how much will President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to rebuild the military actually cost? Given this will be a president who campaigned on the idea that the U.S. military should be focused on counter-terrorism as its most important mission, can this plan stay on track?

First, President Obama’s defense plan is already $113 billion over the amended Budget Control Act spending caps for the next four years. Trump and the Republican Congress will need to repeal those legal caps and add that money before turning to their own priorities. Then, the foundation of Trump’s own plan would require another $100 billion over the same four-year timeframe. Conservatively, that’s about $55 to $60 billion extra per year over four years for the meat and potatoes of a military buildup. Adding in crucial smaller programs, accounting for weapons cost growth, and returning the entire force to adequate readiness pushes the real price tag even further upward to somewhere between an additional $250 to $300 billion over four years.

By comparison, the Budget Control Act has already cut $350 billion in planned military spending relative to the budget levels recommended by Secretary Gates in 2012. In a recent exercise, the American Enterprise Institute spent $1.3 trillion over ten years, but remained unable to match the Gates plan. The only limiting factor to the proposals below is the absorptive capacity of the defense industrial base.

For the Army, Trump wants an active-duty force of 540,000 soldiers — up from the current drawdown to 450,000 — which will cost about $35 to $50 billion during his term. Congressional and service support exists for such an expansion. Based on historical accession rates, a growth rate of 15,000 soldiers per year would be both responsible and possible. The size of the total bill would depend on whether the Army expands its purchases of new-model equipment, or if it outfits these new brigades with weapons mothballed from the postwar drawdown.

For the Navy, the president-elect also wants to build a 350-ship fleet — a long-term, bipartisan task. How could he accomplish this? The Pentagon could realistically buy back six canceled Littoral Combat Ships, add two amphibious ships, and purchase one extra attack sub over the next four years for about $15 billion. The most rational way to move toward 350 ships quickly would require the Trump administration to contract for another $60 billion in procurement beyond its term. This would require continuing production of two Virginia-class attack subs per year through the 2020s even as it builds new ballistic missile subs, adding a third destroyer every year and/or investing in a new cruiser, and purchasing about ten more hulls split between amphibious vessels, logistics ships, and small surface combatants.

In the Air Force, Trump wants to move the fighter fleet toward 1,200 combat-coded aircraft from its current inventory of 1,141, which will soon dip below the Congressionally mandated floor of 1,100. Doubling the F-35A build rate would be the quickest and most efficient way to do so. That would cost about $30 billion over four years.

Lastly, Trump plans to increase the size of the active-duty Marine Corps to 200,000 from the current target of 182,000. Such an end-strength add would require at least $12 billion over four years.

Trump’s plans for the nuclear triad remain opaque. His emphasis on modernization could simply mean protecting current investments, which are already baked into Obama’s budget outlook. Likewise, his advisers have not yet detailed how their focus on missile defense will manifest. This could range from a mere $3 billion investment in an east coast Ground-Based Interceptor site to tens of billions of dollars in missile defense-related spending on high-energy lasers, new Army point defense systems, and interceptor missiles.

Yesterday, our analysis based on the most likely outcomes in the election led us to believe that very little would change for defense spending in the near future. With Trump’s winning the presidency and Republicans retaining control of Congress, the political dynamics shifted entirely. A repeal of the Budget Control Act and a substantial investment in the military now seem imminent. What remains to be seen is whether Republicans can pursue meaningful entitlement reform to render such a buildup sustainable. As a candidate who spoke favorably of leveraging debt, Trump could simply increase defense and infrastructure spending by increasing the debt. In that scenario, the sky is the limit.


Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where she works on defense issues. Rick Berger is a research associate at the Marilyn Ware Center.

Image: Gage Skidmore

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3 thoughts on “How Much Will Donald Trump Really Spend on Defense?

  1. “Trump could simply increase defense and infrastructure spending by increasing the debt. In that scenario, the sky is the limit.”

    This a joke right? I was led to believe reducing the debt was one of the platforms for many of the people running for office. I don’t care what program or reason you are using as an excuse to increase the debt. If you cannot pay for it do not buy it.

  2. Here’s an idea and something that wouldn’t be fixed in a single presidential term, but one could certainly lay the groundwork.
    I think we can all agree that we need to maintain certain weapon system capabilities, (which includes modernization and replacement) , maintain troop strength and readiness, but why does this necessarily mean we need to increase our spending?

    Why aren’t we looking at how the DoD needs to be structured in the 21st century?
    Why aren’t we looking at eliminating some of the redundancy in organizations, personnel and systems?

    Let’s use the Research and Development (R&D) Community as an example; We have the Naval Research Lab (NRL), Army Research Lab (ARL), Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), The Office of Naval Research (ONR), and The Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR). The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and The Department of Energy’s Office of Science and Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) also support DoD related R&D projects.

    Do we need seven different organizations spread around the country not to mention the work that goes on at the various national labs?
    For those of us who have worked in R&D we’ve all seen the redundant projects come and go year after the year. Do we need 6-7 different organizations working on ISR or Cyber related projects, when a single org would do. What if we just had a single DoD Research Agency, with a common core working on projects that impacts the entire force and then a few smaller shops focused on service specific needs?

    How about another area, the Intelligence Community, it’s become a bloated unmanageable whale of an organization. Seriously 17 agencies?
    Here’s what we can eliminate right off the bat
    •Department of Homeland Security- Pretty much useless and a redundant function, knee jerk reaction to 9/11 to create another layer of bureaucracy
    •Drug Enforcement Administration can be absorbed by the FBI, there is no reason to have a separate law enforcement agency
    Looking at the 3 letters for a moment do we really need DIA, NRO, NGA, CIA, NSA or could we consolidate into Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and National Intelligence Agency (NIA)?
    The Intel functions within the Department of Energy, Department of the Treasury, Department of State could be supported by the new NIA

    Air Force Intelligence, Army Intelligence, Coast Guard Intelligence, Marine Corps Intelligence, Navy Intelligence
    I don’t think we need 5 separate services anymore, but that’s a longer separate discussion, so we’ll go with the assumption each will retain an Intelligence function, however there is certainly some room for consolidation here. We have a single school for our Linguists at DLI, why can’t we do the same for the majority of our Intelligence Specialties? Could we turn Goodfellow AFB or Fort Huachuca into Joint Intel Training Centers? Is there any reason we need the NGA School House and the Imagery/GEOINT School at Goodfellow?

  3. The question is not how much he will spend, but rather what quality and quantity he will be able to buy.

    A few years ago Boeing Aircraft was having some serious difficulties with assembling parts for the 787 that were made in various different locales. Airbus had a similar problem with the A-380. At least for the Airbus, the rationale for assembling parts in different countries was far more political than pragmatic. And for many weapon systems in the US inventory, the reason is the same. The manufacturer of the F-35 notes on its websites that part of the F-35 program is spread to 45 states plus Puerto Rico. That helps neither the efficiency of procurement in terms of cost containment nor meeting schedule. It exists for the same reason that Amtrak funds are doled out to states that have NO passenger rail, as a means of buying votes. This practice is commonplace among defense contractors who essentially bribe Congressmen with jobs in their state.

    Now that is far from the only problem with defense procurement, but it is broadly indicative of the nature of the problems. And unless we can fix this and other procurement problems, we will continue to lose the support of more people for even current levels of expenditures. No one wants to double down on inefficiency and overpricing.