By Paul Sonne
The Washington Post
The Pentagon on Tuesday unveiled details of the $750 billion national defense budget that the Trump administration has asked Congress to pass, calling it an example of how the military is shifting its emphasis from counterinsurgencies to competition with China and Russia.
The issue is likely to feature prominently in acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan’s testimony before Congress, scheduled for Thursday. He has said previously the 2020 budget would be a “masterpiece” demonstrating how the Pentagon is adapting to the great-power strategy.
But President Trump’s plan to take money from the Pentagon budget for the border wall and attempt to raise the defense budget without agreeing to hikes in nonmilitary spending has angered Democrats, setting the stage for negotiations that are more hostile than usual and overshadowing the strategic realignment.
The budget request showed some trade-offs the Pentagon would be expected to make to recalibrate the military bureaucracy toward China and Russia after more than a decade and a half spent focusing on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Navy plans to retire one of its aircraft carriers early and invest in drone ships; the Army is looking to scale back investments in legacy helicopters and fighting vehicles and instead buy high-end versions; and the Air Force is dramatically increasing its investments in space.
Whether the changes go far enough to reshape the military for a new mission is a matter of debate that will play out in public over the coming months as the Pentagon seeks to reach an agreement with Congress over what proposals will proceed and earn funding.
The $750 billion request comprises $718 billion for the Defense Department and $32 billion for defense-related activities at other agencies, primarily nuclear weapons programs at the Energy Department. The budget represents a nearly 5 percent increase over the current fiscal year but, when adjusted for inflation, falls below overall defense-spending highs during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon said Tuesday the budget would help ensure peace with Russia and China by building a U.S. military capable of defeating them in a conflict.
“The stakes are clear,” acting deputy defense secretary David L. Norquist said Tuesday at the Pentagon. “If we want peace, adversaries need to know there is no path to victory by fighting us.”
Norquist said the budget represented the largest research, development, test and evaluation request submitted to Congress in 70 years, a testament to the Pentagon’s focus on developing new technologies. He highlighted significant new investments in cyberwarfare, hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, lasers and space, including the creation of a Space Force.
Monday’s request fires the starting gun in negotiations with Capitol Hill over what form and size the ultimate defense budget will take when appropriated.
More than anything else, the budget request is a reflection of the administration’s priorities rather than an indication of the actual amount of money that will be spent on individual programs. Because Congress carries the power of the purse in Washington, lawmakers decide how much money to appropriate for the stated priorities.
Top Pentagon officials initially suggested that the defense budget might be cut as a result of the Trump administration’s efforts to control spending in response to a rising deficit, but the rollout made it clear that the White House wants to raise the defense budget but cut nonmilitary discretionary spending.
The administration asked for a 139 percent increase in the Pentagon war-fighting account, which funds active conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, because that account does not fall under congressionally mandated budget caps that extend for two more years.
Pentagon officials said Monday that only $67 billion of the $165 billion they requested in that account is actually for funding those conflicts, an acknowledgment that the size of the request — the biggest since 2008 — is simply a way to increase the defense budget while complying with the caps. The officials also recognized that the White House dictated the strategy of inflating the war-fighting budget, known as Overseas Contingency Operations, to achieve the desired defense spending levels overall.
Democrats have rejected the approach outright.
“I think there are other important priorities in this country, and if we spend all the money on defense, we aren’t going to be able to meet those priorities,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said Tuesday. “Witness the budget the president just sent.”
Much of the attention during the rollout Tuesday fell on Trump’s plan to take billions of dollars from the military budget for construction of a border wall without approval from Congress, using a combination of emergency and counterdrug authorities.
The Pentagon’s request included $3.6 billion to “backfill” money Trump plans to take for the wall from the Pentagon’s military construction budget this year, as well as an additional $3.6 billion for possible border infrastructure funding during the coming fiscal year.
Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Elaine McCusker said at a briefing that she could not say what programs the money would be going to backfill, because the department has not yet released a list of military construction programs that might lose funding for construction of the wall.
Travis Sharp, research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the effort to take money from the Pentagon budget for the wall could jeopardize the military’s plans as the administration and Congress head into what could be an acrimonious budget season.
“DOD’s carefully laid plans have been undercut by the White House’s waffling about the top line last fall, stuffing the budget with money for the border wall and routing funds through the war account in an accounting gimmick,” Sharp said. “The Pentagon is not to blame for those things, but it may still suffer the consequences.”
Still, there are positive indications that this budget will begin the shift toward strategic competition with China and Russia, said Susanna Blume, a Pentagon official during the Obama administration and deputy director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security.
For example, Blume said, the decision to increase the number of Virginia-class nuclear-powered fast-attack submarines from two to three, invest in unmanned Navy vessels and finalize a decision on how to organize the Space Force represent steps toward implementing the strategy.
The budget request devotes $31 billion to the modernization of the nation’s nuclear triad, aimed primarily at Russia. That includes $3 billion to move into the manufacture and design of the new B-21 bomber, $2.2 billion for the new Columbia-class nuclear submarine, $700 million for a new long-range standoff missile and $600 million to overhaul the intercontinental ballistic missile force.
Some choices appeared out of step with the strategy. The Pentagon requested less money for the European Deterrence Initiative, the main program that bolsters allies in Europe to deter possible incursions from Russia. The Defense Department requested $5.9 billion, $600 million less than the amount Congress appropriated this year.
McCusker said the Pentagon spent robustly on the program last year and had already completed one-off infrastructure and repositioning investments, so therefore did not need to spend more on the effort this year. She said the Pentagon was also looking at “increased burden-sharing” for the initiative, meaning more expenditures by European allies.
The Pentagon also faced questions over a decision to request a mix of older and newer fighter jets, after Trump criticized the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The budget calls for 78 F-35s from Lockheed Martin at a cost of $11.2 billion. But it also requested eight new variants of the older F-15 fighter jet made by Boeing, at a cost of $1.1 billion, the first acquisition of an F-15 since 2001.
“Air Force officials said they made the decision in part to meet their current ambitious goals for readiness and capacity,” Sharp said. “But skeptics will see the move as prioritizing the present over the future.”
Despite rolling out an ambitious administration policy that sought a large-scale recalibration of missile defenses, the administration requested $9.43 billion for the Missile Defense Agency, a decrease of $1.06 billion from the enacted 2019 budget.
The MDA requested $157.4 million for defenses against hypersonic threats and $303.5 million for initiatives to demonstrate the capability of sensors to track ballistic missile targets, with the goal of ultimately using the technology in space to track missiles. Both of the programs are aimed at countering emerging capabilities from Russia and China.