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 […]

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