What’s Wrong with the Defense Department’s 2019 Budget Request – and What Congress Can do to Fix It
The Trump administration had a rare opportunity in the 2019 planning and budgeting cycle. For most of its time in office, the Obama administration requested more for defense than Congress appropriated, and as a result was forced into a series of unstrategic austerity measures, the effects of which are not yet fully appreciated. Conversely, the Trump administration arrived in power when Congress was in a spending mood, creating space to both set a new strategic direction and actually implement the strategy with new resources. The budget request for fiscal year 2019 was the first one prepared entirely by the new administration, guided by its National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy , along with a large influx of cash for the Department of Defense – about $40 billion above the administration’s fiscal year 2018 request. The strategy boldly emphasized strategic competition with China and Russia, so one would expect a budget that emphasizes the advanced capabilities required to retain the U.S. technological edge against those competitors – things like electronic warfare capability, advanced munitions, and artificial intelligence. Instead, the administration submitted a budget request that, with a few notable exceptions, invests heavily in legacy systems, many of which have already been in service for decades, such as the Abrams tank, the Super Hornet fighter jet, and the Apache helicopter.
Thus, the Trump administration has missed its best chance to reshape the force in accordance with the strategy, and it will not get another opportunity like the one it had in the 2019 planning cycle. Building both a new strategy and a first budget request concurrently in the first year of an administration is always challenging. However, given the additional funds the department received this year, the 2019 cycle was the best opportunity to apply those new funds to the administration’s new priorities. And there is no more new money coming. Current defense budget projections both from the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Defense show growth at or below inflation through 2023. As any programmer will tell you, it is much more difficult to take money from an existing program to fund something new than it is to fund that new thing with new money. Consequently, we are left with a request that is out of sync with the National Defense Strategy’s focus on strategic competition with China and Russia. However, Congress can take steps in the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act and the appropriations bills to better align the defense budget with the administration’s strategy.
First, the NDAA should hold the Army accountable to its modernization priorities. Of all the services, the Army is in the worst position in terms of fielding the next generation of combat systems. The cancellation of the Future Combat System program has left the Army with little choice but to keep the “Big Five” from the 1980s (Abrams, Bradley, Apache, Black Hawk, and Patriot) running until it can deliver on its six new modernization efforts. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, and the service has taken that step by announcing its six new modernization priorities and establishing cross-functional teams to pursue them. Congress should watch this effort closely and hold the Army to its commitments in this area.
Second, Congress should consider critical areas where the Navy remains underinvested. The United States continues to enjoy an advantage in the subsurface domain, but investment in this area is more or less flat. Navy and Marine Corps aviation is challenged in both capability (the need for more advanced aircraft) and capacity (the number of aircraft available). The findings of the investigations from last year’s ship collisions and aviation mishaps indicate that additional investment in training and readiness is also warranted; however, the Navy’s investments in readiness accounts were also relatively flat between the fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2019 requests. Finally, the Navy research and development budget remains small relative to the investments in advanced capabilities required to remain competitive against China and Russia.
Third, Congress should make a final determination on governance of the space domain and levy reporting requirements for how the Defense Department is preparing for a war that extends into space. Factions in Congress (with potential support from the president) have been pushing for the creation of a dedicated Space Corps, while the Defense Department prefers to leave the Air Force in charge of the space domain. At this juncture, committing to an organizational structure and implementing it is more important than which organizational structure is ultimately selected, rather like deciding whether to drive on the right or the left side of the road. Each of the models under consideration has pros and cons, but continued argument over who is in charge in space is drawing time and attention away from urgent programmatic and operational priorities. Settling these questions will allow the department to focus on the urgent need to improve the capability and resilience of U.S. space systems and space situational awareness.
Finally, the two congressional armed services committees should resist the urge to continually redraw the Pentagon’s organizational chart, as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry has already proposed doing again in his overhaul of the Fourth Estate. The Defense Department has been undergoing some kind of reorganization, reform, or efficiencies effort continuously for the better part of the past decade. Many of these efforts, such as the division of the old Under Secretariat for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, are not yet implemented, meaning their consequences are not yet clear. In addition, each of these reorganizations consumes unbelievable amounts of senior leader and staff time and energy, decreasing focus on and time dedicated to the department’s actual mission. Whether or not a new organization performs better than the old is primarily dependent on the personalities in charge. No organizational structure is perfect, but an effective leader can work with whatever exists to achieve the president and secretary’s objectives. The Senate should spend more time in the confirmation process ensuring that nominees are qualified and capable, and both houses should spend less time rearranging the boxes on the organizational chart.
The Trump administration has, for the most part, missed a rare opportunity to provide the future force with the capabilities it will need to execute the two strategic documents’ emphasis on competition with China and Russia. While highly unsatisfying, this approach is understandable given the fact that the Defense Department continues to face substantial budgetary uncertainty. There is logic in deciding to spend cash in hand on legacy systems that are tried and tested and can deliver in the near term. Money spent to develop new systems is wasted if there is no funding to bring them into production in the future. And the future defense topline remains unknown. The 2011 Budget Control Act caps on discretionary spending and the threat of sequestration will return in 2020 unless Congress makes another deal. The November midterm elections could alter the balance between Democrats, Republican defense hawks, and Republican deficit hawks that allowed Congress to reach its most recent budget agreement, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. Such a change would not only threaten Congress’ ability to come to a new budget agreement, but also call into question whether it will honor the second year of this current deal. As recently as 2017, the second year of a two-year budget deal (the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015) collapsed as a result of an unexpected electoral outcome. The president only grudgingly signed the 2018 omnibus spending bill, and the fragile coalition between Democrats and defense hawks in Congress may falter after the midterms, placing the 2019 deal at risk. These machinations leave a giant question mark hanging where a stable defense spending topline should be. Despite this uncertainty, the authorization and appropriations process offers Congress an opportunity to make the defense budget more coherent and more consistent with U.S. strategy.
Susanna V. Blume is a Senior Fellow in the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security, formerly Deputy Chief of Staff for Programs and Plans to the Deputy Secretary of Defense. Follow her on Twitter @SusannaVBlume.