Today, the Trump administration announced that it is requesting $750 billion for national defense as part of its fiscal year 2020 budget request – a five percent ($34 billion) increase from the 2019 enacted level. The additional funding would enable the Department of Defense (DOD) to implement the National Defense Strategy (NDS), address great power threats, and begin to reverse the erosion of U.S. military superiority – yet requesting wartime spending to circumvent budget caps could put vital Pentagon funding at risk.
The $750 billion in requested funding for national defense includes $718 billion for DOD and $32 billion for other agencies with defense-related responsibilities. The $750 billion consists of three categories: 1) $576 billion for the base budget; 2) $165 billion of overseas contingency operations (OCO), or wartime funding; and 3) $9 billion “to address border security and hurricane recovery.”
The $165 billion in requested OCO funding represents a major increase from $69 billion in 2019. It entails an explicit effort by the administration to bypass spending limits associated with current law, since OCO funding is not subject to the same statutory limit. The budget request even admits that OCO funding will cover “direct war costs, enduring in-theater support, and certain base budget requirements” (emphasis added). Previous budget requests have employed the same tactic, yet the sheer size of this OCO request may spark additional controversy.
A $750 billion budget request is roughly consistent with the recommendation of the bipartisan, congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission (NDSC) to “increase the base defense budget at an average rate of three to five percent above inflation through the Future Years Defense Program and perhaps beyond.” In a January event, NDSC co-chair, Admiral (retired) Gary Roughead, emphasized that increased funding is “required to modernize both the conventional and nuclear, to dig out of the readiness hole that we’re in. And then to bring the new technology forward in effective ways.”
However, the NDSC also recommended that Congress “gradually integrate OCO spending back into the base Pentagon budget,” rather than relying on OCO to get around budget caps. However, the NDSC hastened to add, “This also requires a dollar-for-dollar increase in … spending caps, should they remain in force, so that this transfer does not result in an overall spending cut.”
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, DOD did not receive the timely and sufficient funding necessary to simultaneously accomplish current missions, maintain military readiness, and modernize aging equipment. Consequently, DOD was forced to postpone modernization in order to prioritize the preparedness of units set to deploy next. Meanwhile, China and Russia undertook comprehensive efforts to modernize their forces. As a result, America’s military supremacy eroded, leaving the U.S. insufficiently prepared to deter and defeat great power adversaries.
Over the last two years – thanks to the NDS and increased funding from Congress – this administration has made progress in halting much of the erosion in U.S. military supremacy. However, the continued progress our national security requires will be impossible without sufficient funding for DOD. After all, a well-formulated strategy means little if it lacks sufficient funding.
Congress should not permit the debate regarding the base versus OCO budget to obscure the fact that a significant reduction in the overall level of requested defense funding would undercut the readiness gains achieved over the last two years and decrease the ability to deter China and Russia.
Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow Bradley at @Brad_L_Bowman. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.