President Donald Trump just released his proposed defense budget for 2019, and it’s not as massive as the administration might have you believe.
On the campaign trail, candidate Trump talked frequently about rebuilding the military and increasing defense spending to do so. Over his past year in office, he’s advocated for giving more money to the military.
But Trump’s defense budget request for $686 billion — if passed by Congress — is still only a 2 percent increase from last year’s, experts tell me.
“Trump’s defense budget is anticlimactic,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. The modest increase won’t allow the military to do the things Trump talked about on the campaign trail any time soon, she said, like “rapidly grow the Army, build a 350-ship Navy, and increase the combat Air Force.”
Fred Bartels, a defense budget expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told me that the 2 percent increase barely rises above inflation. That said, the request is a 13 percent increase from the 2017 defense proposal, and would add around 26,000 new troops.
And to be fair, Trump did request the largest defense base budget ever at $617 billion. The Pentagon uses that money to, among other things, keep the lights on, pay and train troops, and buy and maintain weapons. Trump also proposed $69 billion to fund America’s wars; at the start of the previous administration, Obama requested around $160 billion — but that was when the US had around 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Here’s the overview of Trump’s request, and the important takeaways.
- $617 billion: Base budget for the Defense Department
- $69 billion: Overseas Contingency Operations (extra funding for wars that Congress can’t limit, known as OCO)
- $30 billion: “Other” national defense spending, which includes money for the Energy Department to oversee America’s nuclear weapons
- $716 billion: Total defense spending
Trump wants more money to counter Russia
Trump remains among the most Russia-friendly presidents in modern memory — but he still wants to push back against Moscow.
His defense budget request calls for an extra $1.7 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative, bringing the total to $6.5 billion. That’s a Pentagon program which allocates money for sending more US troops to Europe and training with European countries.
According to the budget request, Trump wants this increase “to better counter Russian coercion and deter Russian aggression in the region.”
The Kremlin may now have buyer’s remorse, since the US intelligence community revealed that Russian President Vladimir Putin aimed to help elect Trump.
Trump wants to improve America’s missile defense. North Korea will notice.
Kingston Reif, an expert at the Arms Control Association, noted on Twitter that Trump requested more money for missile defense. The budget specifically asks for 20 more ground-based missile interceptors in Alaska. That’s potentially big news.
The US has a total of 44 interceptors stationed in Alaska and California they could use if North Korea shoots a missile in America’s direction. But the missile defense system that uses those interceptors has only passed 10 of 18 tests. The military also conducts those tests under highly controlled conditions.
That’s worth highlighting: Even in the best conditions, the system that’s supposed to protect the US from a North Korean nuclear weapon has just over a 50 percent success rate. That’s why experts are generally pessimistic about US capability to stop a North Korean weapon headed our way.
“Depending on the trajectory, we should not assume that we can, with any reliability, intercept intercontinental ballistic missile warhead targets,” Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at MIT, told me last November.
It’s very likely that North Korea will notice America’s desire to add more interceptors — even if they are unreliable.
It’ll be awhile before the Navy meets Trump’s 355-ship promise
Trump promised a 355-ship Navy during the campaign, up from the about 277 it has now. Trump officially turned that promise into a policy last December — but this budget doesn’t provide the money needed to do that, as Eaglen noted earlier.
In fact, Military.com’s Hope Hedge Seck notes the Navy says the plan to get 335 ships — 20 below Trump’s promise — won’t be achieved until the 2050s.
That means it could take around 30 years to meet Trump’s goal — which will be long after he leaves the Oval Office.
“No longer can the military complain about not having enough money”
The new budget request should still make the military happy, other experts said in interviews.
“No longer can the military complain about not having enough money,” Gordon Adams, former President Bill Clinton’s top White House budget official for national security, said in an interview. “It’s living proof that if you wail loud enough and long enough, get a Republican Congress and White House, and scare them all with tales of Russian and Chinese threats, you will get your wish — more money.”
Last week, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee that the military needed more money, or America put itself at risk. Days later, lawmakers struck a deal to lift previously imposed defense-spending caps — paving the way for Trump’s big ask.
That led Mattis to tell reporters on Sunday that the new budget “is what we need to bring us back to a position of primacy.”
The Pentagon’s top spokesperson, Dana White, tweeted that the budget “ensures we are ready for the fight of the future.” In other words, it refocuses the US’s attention on remaining as strong as possible to fend off threats from possible competitors like China and Russia.
In an interview, Mark Cancian, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, summed it up for me simply: “It’s a big bump.”
It just may not be as big a bump as Trump made it out to be.