The Trump administration increased spending for defense by $95 billion between FY 2016 and FY 2019, but even with such a large increase, there was no escaping the trade-off among readiness, modernization, and force structure. Readiness came first so that forces could meet a minimum standard. The next priority was to increase modernization by expanding production of existing systems, upgrading these systems, and enhancing research and development for future systems. Expanding force structure came last in priority, so the increases were smaller than had been expected.
This aligns with the new national defense strategy but collides with day-to-day deployment demands for ongoing conflicts, crisis response, and engagement with allies and partners. To meet these demands, the services are retaining more legacy systems and moving towards a de facto high-low mix.
It Starts with Strategy
The administration’s National Defense Strategy, issued in January 2018, bluntly depicts a U.S. military that is losing its edge over potential competitors and urges “increased and sustained investment” for “long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia.” It echoes many long-standing themes from the Republican national security establishment.
Overall, there is a strong tone of U.S. primacy: “The Department of Defense will…remain the preeminent military power in the world, ensure the balance of power remains in our favor, and advance an international order that is most conducive to our security and prosperity.” The Department of Defense (DoD) will “prevail in conflict and preserve peace through strength.” There is no hint that the United States will accept decline or even a multipolar world.
Show Me the Money
The Trump administration did indeed put its money where its strategy was. The chart below shows the large increase already enacted (black line), what the Trump administration plans (yellow)—about $60 billion per year more than what the Obama administration had planned (blue)—and the Budget Control Act caps (BCA, red), which continue to 2021 and will shape future budget negotiations. The Gates projection (orange) provides a benchmark because then- Secretary of Defense Gates had stated that this was the minimum needed for defense, and that level is often cited as a goal by defense hawks. The Trump administration gets close to this level.
But all buildups have limits. The years beyond FY 2019 rise at only the rate of inflation, which means that any new initiatives must be paid for by cuts elsewhere. The administration has stated that it would find management efficiencies, but, so far, has identified few. More likely, the Department will have to identify and cut lower priority programs.
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