This Analysis was originally published on March 7, 2017 by the Arab Center, Washington, DC. Click here to learn more about ACW.
The signature blueprint of any US president is the federal budget. Donald Trump is giving us an insight into how he views the world and what resources he intends to employ in advancing US interests abroad. The FY 2018 defense budget proposal alters the way the United States projects its power while offering no levelness between defense and diplomacy. However, the chances that the current version of the proposal will pass through the US Congress are slim; a prominent Republican Senator called it “dead on arrival.”
A complete draft of the defense budget will not be ready for public dissemination until May 2017. What we have so far is what the director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Mick Mulvaney termed “a topline number only.” This policy analysis will focus on key trends in the budget proposal and what impact it might have on US foreign policy.
Salient Features of the Budget
Defense budget priorities: The focus of the FY 2018 defense budget is restoring US nuclear capabilities as well as ensuring military readiness to have enough resources to expand the number of airstrikes and special forces in the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria, Yemen, and Somalia.
Pay as you go: There is no parity between defense discretionary spending ($603 billion) and non-defense discretionary spending ($462 billion), an issue that will draw resistance from Democrats in Congress. The increase in the defense budget will be offset by equal reductions in non-defense spending.
Discrepancy in numbers: While the White House has been talking about a 9.4 percent increase in the defense budget ($54 billion), these numbers do not provide the full picture. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) noted that the actual increase is $18.5 billion, or 3 percent more than Obama’s FY 2018 defense budget.
Depleting resources of diplomacy: The State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) budgets will be cut by nearly 37 percent in the White House proposal. That will significantly slash US foreign assistance programs, which are less than 1 percent of the overall budget.
Pentagon Shifts to Warfighting Readiness
The strategic shift that Defense Secretary General James Mattis brought to the Pentagon was fleshed out in a January 31, 2017 memo. Mattis believes the Obama Administration focused on future threats more than current military readiness, hence he offered a three-phase transition plan to correct that pattern in the defense budget. Phase one requires an FY 2017 budget amendment request (already sent to OMB) to address “urgent warfighting readiness shortfalls” and meet new requirements to accelerate the campaign against ISIL.
Phase two, which is the proposed FY 2018 budget, is expected to balance between pressing programmatic shortfalls and continuing to rebuild readiness. That effort will include, according to the memo, buying more critical ammunitions and growing force structure at “the maximum responsible rate.” After focusing on the short-term investments in military readiness, the Pentagon will produce phase three in 2018 that will include the National Defense Strategy (NDS) with a budget vision for FY 2019-2023. NDS is expected to include building capacity, improving lethality against a broad spectrum of potential threats, and reforming the way the Pentagon does business.
The US government’s foreign assistance in 2017 and 2018 will have significant focus on what Trump has called in his first address to Congress the mission to “demolish and destroy” ISIL. The phased approach to the defense budget means that the Pentagon expects the war against ISIL in Iraq and Syria to be wrapped up by 2018. It also reflects plans to intensify strikes over ISIL and al-Qaeda operatives in Syria as well as to expand operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and al-Shabab in Somalia.
The new approach to the war on ISIL not only requires allocating budget resources for more drone sorties and ammunitions, but the Pentagon is also expected to recommend deploying additional troops in both Syria and Iraq as well as in Somalia, where Washington aims to start providing air and ground support for the fragile national army. More importantly, the defense budget increase will reportedly include additional resources for establishing “a more robust presence in key international waterways and choke points” such as the Strait of Hormuz and the South China Sea.
The Trump Administration’s defense budget increase is informed by the Mattis memo and by the short-term needs to expand the war on ISIL—and not by a long-term vision to rebuild the military. However, the trend of increasing the size of the military force contradicts the efforts to balance the federal budget and has no strong rationale at a time when the number of US soldiers deployed in war zones is decreasing or rather limited. While Obama’s defense budget proposal asked to cut the number of military service members by 27,015 for active and 9,800 for reserve, the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) released by Congress ended up increasing the force by 24,000 active and 12,000 reserve personnel. During his presidential campaign, Trump promised to further expand the active-duty army force from 475,000 to 540,000, a return to President George W. Bush’s wartime troop level.
Defense Budget: Trump Versus Obama
In its nascent defense budget proposal, the Trump Administration’s military spending does not necessarily exceed by far what the previous administration allocated. In fact, the current White House is benefiting from the increase in the defense budget approved by the Obama Administration in the past few years, in particular in FY 2012. The FY 2017 defense budget had a total of $611.2 billion, which included $523.7 billion in discretionary spending and $67.8 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). However, the actual defense budget was $627.1 billion if one counts the $7.8 billion for discretionary programs outside the jurisdiction of Congress and the $8.1 billion for programs funded by mandatory spending.
Here is why the White House’s numbers require further explanation. The 2011 Budget Control Act set a spending cap of $549 billion for 2018, and Trump’s White House is now proposing $603 billion, hence the stated $54 billion increase. However, the Obama Administration had already approved going beyond the $549 billion cap and had proposed for FY 2018 a defense budget of $585 billion, which makes the actual increase of Trump’s proposed budget only $18.5 billion. The previous administration did not shy away from increasing the defense budget. Indeed, it is worth noting that the $682 billion defense budget of 2012 was more than the combined military spending ($652 billion) of China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy, and Brazil.