Strategy to Ask: Analysis of the 2020 Defense Budget Request by Susanna V. Blume – Center for a New American Security Report
Executive Summary: The defense establishment is enjoying a period of bipartisan agreement on the need to prioritize strategic competition with China and Russia. Recent strategies from both the Obama and Trump administrations have articulated this direction. In light of this fact, the critical question this report asks is: Has the Trump administration put resources behind its strategy? The answer is: Yes and no. The 2020 budget request does contain some new and exciting investments that bring the size and shape of the joint force into better alignment with the National Defense Strategy (NDS). For example:
The Army has chosen to slow its end-strength growth, while setting a goal of achieving a 50-50 split between investment in legacy and next-generation systems, compared with a ratio of 80-to-20 today.
The Navy has shifted substantial resources to accelerate development of new unmanned systems.
The Air Force continues to invest in advanced aircraft and munitions, though with some notable reductions from the fiscal 2019 spending plan.
However, an examination of the budget through the framework of two critical balancing acts begins to reveal where the 2020 budget request comes up short relative to the strategy’s ambition. First, every defense budget must consider the balance among the joint force’s size, its readiness, and its possession of and ability to wield advanced military technology. Second, defense officials must also decide on the relative prioritization of today’s military operations against the need to prepare for the future by investing in next-generation military systems. In both respects, this defense budget request perpetuates bias in favor of size and the near term. A budget request more in line with the strategy would have:
Abandoned quantitative goals such as 355 ships for the Navy and 386 squadrons for the Air Force.
Invested far more in the next generation of critical military technologies, including advanced munitions, artificial intelligence, and autonomous systems.
But the real failing of the 2020 budget proposed by President Donald Trump’s administration is its pack-aging. In an attempt to avoid negotiating with Democrats over domestic spending, the administration has submitted a budget that, while technically complying with current spending caps introduced in the Budget Control Act, actually increases defense spending by shifting $98 billion from the regular defense budget into accounts not subject to these spending limits. This blatant budgetary malpractice, in combination with the poison pill of Southwest border wall funding, rendered the president’s 2020 defense budget request dead on arrival in Congress. As a result, the administration has abdicated to Congress critical decisions about the size and shape of the future joint force.