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Analysis: The Pentagon’s new budget is about to come undone

Along with Congress, world events and ballooning costs will reshape Trump’s budget plan

Aerial view of the Pentagon building photographed on Sept. 24, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Aerial view of the Pentagon building photographed on Sept. 24, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo) ()

For the coming fiscal year, President Donald Trump is proposing the second-biggest defense budget since World War II, even after adjusting for inflation, except for the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The only fiscal year that has seen higher spending, save for the post-9/11 wars’ peak, is the current one. The new request may ultimately be about 3 percent less than this year’s spending levels, after adjusting for inflation.

Congress will go along with the total amount that Trump is proposing, but the details will be substantially reordered.

The forces that will reshape Trump’s plan include not just lawmakers but also world events and the ballooning cost of U.S. weapons, facilities and personnel benefits.

National security spending in the Pentagon and other federal departments and agencies is set by law at $740.5 billion for fiscal 2021, and that is the amount the president is requesting. The Pentagon’s base budget accounts for $636.4 billion of that total, while its overseas contingency operations, or warfighting, account is $69 billion.

The budget law that has capped defense spending since 2011 expires after fiscal 2021. After that, no caps will apply, unless Congress imposes new ones.

The Pentagon is planning for its budget to grow a little more than 2 percent a year on average in each year through fiscal 2025.  

That’s a lot of money, but it is not a growing pot, after accounting for inflation — at least as envisioned by the Pentagon right now.

Focus on new weapons

Within the Defense Department’s overall request for fiscal 2021, the amount slated for research, development, test and evaluation, or RDT&E, programs is $106.6 billion.

A senior official said it is the largest research request in history. And it is about 6 percent more than was planned a year ago for fiscal 2021.

Officials say they want this money to go to develop cybersecurity, space defenses, hypersonic missiles, 5G networks, artificial intelligence and unmanned systems to fight great powers, among other priorities.

That research increase has been paid for by cuts to Pentagon oversight offices and by a major slice out of procurement spending, officials said.

Indeed, the procurement request of $136.9 billion for fiscal 2021 would be 6 percent less than the Pentagon projected at this time last year.

“They are trying to move money back to RDT&E to prevent a decline, but that may be coming at the expense of procurement,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They are showing a sustained focus on investing in new technologies and programs, and it comes at the expense of buying things that are already in production.”

That dip in procurement spending is understandable, experts say, because it takes time to move next-generation prototypes into production. A move to be more advanced does not happen overnight.

Procurement pushback certain

But Congress may not like many of the procurement cuts the Pentagon has proposed to pay for its next-generation development work.

For example, the Pentagon decided to request one Virginia-class attack submarine for fiscal 2021 instead of the two subs that the Navy had initially wanted to request. Two Virginia-class subs, which are built at General Dynamics’ Electric Boat in Connecticut, were funded in fiscal 2020.

Each one costs more than $3 billion. That accounts for nearly half the cut to the requested procurement account compared to last year’s plan for fiscal 2021.

A coterie of influential lawmakers, including House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Chairman Joe Courtney, D-Conn., may look to add that second sub back into the new budget.

The Pentagon is also requesting $11.4 billion for 79 F-35 jets. But that is two fewer F-35s than had been planned last year for fiscal 2021.

Congress has typically funded more F-35s than the Pentagon wants, an expensive pattern that may well recur in the fiscal 2021 cycle. The Lockheed Martin stealth fighter has jobs sprinkled across nearly every state, and its biggest backers include Texas Republican Kay Granger, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee.

Rebuffing retirements

The Pentagon also plans in fiscal 2021 to retire certain aircraft and ships sooner than previously planned.

“We have some platforms that have become prohibitively expensive to sustain, and we have some platforms that are not as useful in the high-end fight,” the senior defense official said.

The planes that would be retired early include F-15C fighter jets, KC-135 and KC-10 refueling tanker aircraft and B-1 bombers, officials said.

The request also proposes retiring four Navy cruiser ships.

Each of those assets has a constituency that is certain to push back against the proposed reductions.

“Congress is going to have a lot to say about this,” Harrison said.

To the degree Congress nixes the Pentagon’s proposed reductions, lawmakers will have to find something else to cut to provide the savings.

That is because the total amount of funding in the overall defense budget is essentially fixed, even allowing for wiggle room provided by spending not capped by law, meaning programs designated as emergency funding to pay for recovery from disasters or war costs.

“For everything Congress wants to add back, it is going to have to find its own offset,” Harrison said.

Political paring

The question is what else will be cut to pay for congressional priorities that do not match the administration’s.

Appropriators quietly unearth billions of dollars of savings each year in so-called rescissions, which are cuts to previously appropriated funds that help increase the available money in the current fiscal year. That money will be found again and will help alleviate some of the budget pressure.

As for other sources of savings, Congress is wont to make cuts to the least politically connected programs. This means that procurement initiatives, which employ people producing visible products today, and benefits programs, which directly affect military families, are less likely to be cut than research programs, which typically employ fewer people and are often less well-known to lawmakers and voters.

Members of Congress may back high-profile research efforts such as hypersonics research, but they may subtract money from less famous research program with fewer champions.

The other perennial places Congress prefers to cut are training and maintenance accounts. But issues such as decaying Navy dry docks cannot be put off much longer, because it affects the number of ships capable of deploying. And less training can contribute to lethal accidents.

Cost growth

Another factor that will disrupt Pentagon budget plans is internal cost pressure. It will reduce the buying power of even an epic budget.

The share of Pentagon money that goes to pay and benefits, notably including health care, and to the maintenance of infrastructure, has continued to swell in recent years.

When the budget rose — as it did after 9/11 and again in the last couple of years — there was enough to cover those demands, as well as to pay for developing and producing virtually every weapon on the services’ wish lists.

However, now the budget is just keeping pace with inflation, if that much. And it could go down in real terms in the years ahead if a Democrat is elected president this year and if Democrats continue to control at least one chamber of Congress.

In that context, it is difficult to boost investment in new weapons, when equipment repair and training programs are still on the mend from a couple of decades of war, and while costs keep mounting, even just to keep the same buildings and equipment operating and the same number of people employed.

At a time when the armed forces of China and Russia are more assertive and capable, the U.S. military needs to stay ahead of the technical curve. But that becomes more difficult as the prices of new weapons also soar, in addition to the rising infrastructure and personnel costs.

These factors could force the Pentagon and Congress to make tougher choices than they have had to make for a long time: about doing away with major weapons and cutting back the number of troops.

Enemy gets a vote

Then there is the world situation, which always scrambles the best-laid plans and adds unexpected costs in a capped budget.

The halving of the 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria late last year gained a lot of attention, and Trump has said America plans to stop its “endless wars.”

However, at the same time, some 14,000 additional U.S. troops have gone to the Middle East since May, many of them sent to Saudi Arabia with little press coverage.

That represents a net uptick in U.S. forces in the region, despite all the talk in Washington about shifting the military’s focus to China and Russia.

To be sure, U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan, Africa and Latin America may come down significantly. And they also may not.

Either way, another crisis — in the Mideast or somewhere else — is undoubtedly around the corner.

Andrew Clevenger contributed to this story.

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