Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said that the $750 billion national defense budget request for fiscal year 2020 released today would be the administration’s “masterpiece” because it would consummate several efforts to implement the National Defense Strategy.
Masterpiece theater perhaps better describes the current situation. As it heads to Capitol Hill, the new budget likely will face at least two critiques.
- Topline toing and froing: Last fall President Trump considered three toplines: first $733 billion, then $700 billion, and finally $750 billion. The toing and froing forced DoD to prepare multiple budgets, leaving less time for other priorities. The fluctuating topline undercut DoD’s ability to present its budget as a carefully-crafted plan. Congress will ask which funds are essential to the strategy – and which funds DoD added to satisfy the president’s last-minute call for more money.
- Dollars up, deployments down? The 2020 budget request is unusual because the topline is growing while the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Syria is shrinking. Dollars and deployments often move in unison, so some members of Congress will ask, what happened to the peace dividend? DoD could respond that savings from troop withdrawals went toward competing more vigorously with China and Russia. But Congress may oppose treating defense dollars so interchangeably, particularly when doing so includes gimmicks like the administration’s proposal to evade the Budget Control Act spending caps by redirecting funds into the Overseas Contingency Operations account.
If DoD cannot counter these critiques, Congress likely will not approve a $750 billion budget. Instead the topline may land around $730-$740 billion, a real growth rate of about 1% that a) aligns with DoD’s original plan for 2020 and b) matches the historical average when the United States is not fighting a full-scale war and has divided government. One percent growth is plausible politically since both parties may prefer adhering to the defense spending status quo heading into a presidential election year.
All these complicating factors likely will cause the 2020 budget to fall short of a masterpiece. That is to be expected. As Fred Iklé wrote, “The true strategic thinker knows that to write the last coda would be contrary to his mission.” Rather than a final note, the 2020 budget is just another in a long line of opportunities to improve the nation’s security, one line item at a time.
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