President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget is here and he isn’t being stingy with the defense spending. The controversial plan calls for $668 billion in spending, a $52 billion increase overall from last year. But Trump’s bill is still not the military-grower he said it would be.
This budgetary move should not come as a surprise for anyone. During the 2016 campaign, the president repeatedly criticized his predecessor, Barack Obama, over his management of the military, which he said made it weaker and money-starved. Trump was especially critical of Obama’s sequestration plan, arguing that spending cuts would hamper military readiness (even though he once was in favor of it, per Politico).
Indeed, $52 billion is a lot of money, but it would only be the ninth largest increase in the past 40 years, said Todd Harrison, a defense spending expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan, nonprofit global policy research organization in Washington D.C. The Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush presidencies saw much higher increases, he added.
The budget calls for more than 56,000 soldiers, sailors, Airmen, and Marines than were previously planned under Obama; as of fiscal year 2017, total U.S. military active duty strength is nearly 1.3 million people. Of the $13 billion in spending earmarked for fighting ISIS, $1.8 billion will be for training and equipping U.S. allies on the ground in that effort.
Harrison said the services are getting some nice hardware additions, too. The Army is getting $936 million for 61 AH-64E Apaches, for example, $804 million for the procurement of 2,110 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles, the Army and Marine Corps’ Humvee replacement. The Navy is getting $845 million for four carrier-capable F-35C strike fighters.
Going to the Marines is $2.8 billion for the procurement of 20 F-35Bs and the U.S. Air Force is getting a $5.4 billion procurement for 46 F-35As. Additionally, basic military pay is increasing by 2.1 percent, which means that if you’re an E-1, you’ll be getting paid a couple hundred extra bucks a month, yet still less than projected private sector wage increases.
For a complete list of what the services are getting, go here.
This all sounds good on paper, but what this budget does not do is significantly grow the military. For example, Trump called for growing the Navy to 350 ships. This budget calls for 282 battleships by the end of fiscal year 2017 (up from 275) and then to 292 by fiscal year 2018.
“This budget does not put the Navy on a path to get to 350 ships anytime soon,” Harrison said. As for his promise to grow the Army to 540,000 in active duty, this budget keeps the service at 476,000 in active service, which is much lower than what he promised during the campaign.
Neither of his promises were realistic, Harrison said, because it simply takes time to grow the military and additional money than current budget caps simply will not allow. Obama’s sequestration plan, the Budget Control Act, is still in effect and will remain so until Congress reverses it.
Until then, he can’t ball out of control with federal dollars as he thought he could.
“(Trump) is working within a very constrained budget,” he said. “It wasn’t realistic to expect he could do everything he promised during the campaign.”
Which brings us to an interesting note about the F-35 procurements. If you remember, one of the first things Trump called for when he first entered office was lowering the cost of the F-35. Indeed, it is the most expensive weapons program in history. But in February, Lockheed Martin announced an agreement to sell 90 new F-35 fighter jets to the Defense Department for $8.5 billion, which saved $700 million when compared to the last deal.
But it really wasn’t Trump’s doing; the plan to cut down F-35 costs was already in the making. Apparently, as you build a particular platform over the years, it gets cheaper to make.
That’s just a handy mental footnote, in case Trump wants to take credit for it.
But the main takeaway from this is that, while his budget is not that much different from what Obama planned for 2017, it really doesn’t come close to the promises he made during the campaign. Remember back in February during his State of the Union when he said his budget called for the biggest increases in national defense spending history? Well, that wasn’t true, according to PolitiFact:
Budget writers talk about the base defense budget. That number excludes billions for Overseas Contingency Operations, a big ticket item that covers the costs of actually fighting wars. Right now, that spending adds about $55 billion to the Pentagon’s account.
When the contingency money is factored in, spending today is about $587 billion. This difference can lead to some confusion as people debate the magnitude of Trump’s request. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Trump’s plan raises the Pentagon’s budget by only about $18 billion. But he’s comparing Trump’s apparent base request to the full Pentagon budget.
So with that in mind, let’s go back in time.
President Jimmy Carter’s last budget kicked up military spending 25 percent in 1981. President Ronald Reagan’s added another 20 percent the next year. President George W. Bush raised it by 27 percent in 2003, 13 percent in 2007 and nearly 12 percent in 2008.
Trump’s spending doesn’t really compare. The reality is that, as many presidents realize—but this one especially—is that the reality of the position is very different from the campaign trail. He simply cannot speak something into the universe and make it so. And his budget reveals as much.
“People didn’t realize and maybe he didn’t realize how limited his options were,” Harrison said.
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that $5.4 billion would go towards procurement of F-35As for the U.S. Air Force, not the Navy.