Consistent with last year’s budget agreement, this week the Trump administration requested $740.5 billion in national defense funding for fiscal year (FY) 2021 – which includes a negligible increase for the Pentagon that will not even keep pace with projected inflation. This insufficient topline for defense funding makes it vital that Congress pass its annual defense appropriation bill on time to avoid another continuing resolution (CR), which would reduce Pentagon spending power.
The $740.5 billion in requested FY 2021 funding includes $705.4 billion for the Department of Defense (DOD), approximately a tenth of a percent above the FY 2020 enacted level of $704.6 billion. The requested funding consists of three categories: $636.4 billion of base budget funding; $53.0 billion for overseas contingency operations (OCO); and a further $16 billion in OCO funding for military requirements normally associated with the base budget.
The budget proposal includes funding for key defense priorities. This includes $28.9 billion for nuclear modernization, $20.3 billion for missile defense, $21.3 billion for munitions, and a record $106.6 billion for research, development, testing, and evaluation. DOD plans to devote much of the research budget to critical technologies, or what it calls “advanced capabilities enablers.” These include hypersonics ($3.2 billion), microelectronics/5G ($1.5 billion), autonomy ($1.7 billion), and artificial intelligence ($841 million).
DOD said Monday its budget request “supports the irreversible implementation of the National Defense Strategy (NDS).” While components of the budget request certainly do so, the insufficient topline number ignores the recommendations of the National Defense Strategy Commission, an independent, nonpartisan group of experts commissioned by Congress to review the NDS. In its final report, the Commission recommended that “Congress increase the base defense budget at an average rate of three to five percent above inflation” for the coming years. It assessed that these modest annual increases in defense funding were “required to execute the ambitious strategy the NDS lays out.”
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that inflation will hover around 2 percent for the coming years. Accordingly, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe assessed that a flat national defense topline for FY 2021 would amount to roughly a $15 billion decrement in real purchasing power for the Pentagon.
To compensate, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has led an aggressive effort to “free up time, money and manpower to put back into our highest priorities.” In just a few months, Esper estimates that DOD has saved over $5 billion. This will prove valuable in mitigating a portion of the damage associated with an insufficient defense topline.
As part of the budget deal last year, congressional defense hawks agreed to a topline defense number they correctly viewed as insufficient in order to create much-needed fiscal certainty for the Pentagon and defense suppliers.
That trade will turn out to be prudent if it avoids yet another damaging CR, which would delay modernization, increase Pentagon costs, waste tax dollars, undermine readiness, and hurt service members and their families.
As Republicans and Democrats work out real differences regarding how to balance defense versus non-defense discretionary spending, they must ensure that U.S. troops receive predictable, sufficient, and timely funding.
Avoiding yet another CR for the Pentagon will represent an important test of whether congressional leaders can fulfill one of their most basic – and important – constitutional responsibilities.
Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Mikhael Smits is a research analyst. For more analysis from Brad, Mikhael, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Brad and Mikhael on Twitter at @Brad_L_Bowman and @MikhaelSmits. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.