2020 Called Pivotal Year for Military Buildup

By Jon Harper

Photo: iStock

The much-ballyhooed military buildup promised by President Donald Trump isn’t expected to kick into high gear until fiscal year 2020. However, political winds could blow the project off track.

The fiscal year 2019 budget request, slated to be released in February, will be “a step up” from current spending levels, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon in December. But “you’ll see [the buildup] much more alive in POM ‘20,” he said referring to the next program objective memorandum budget planning cycle.

Last year’s fiscal blueprint called for $586.6 billion in base discretionary spending for the Defense Department in 2019, and $598.9 billion in 2020. Shanahan did not disclose what the new proposed toplines would be.

Shanahan cited the need to develop the Pentagon’s new national defense strategy while also trying to build the 2019 budget as a key reason why military modernization isn’t projected to ramp up until 2020.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense budget analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, tweeted that she expects the 2019 request to include “a few program increases, new starts and hyped-up tech investments, but overall no dramatic changes” relative to the previous year.

"Last year’s fiscal blueprint called for $586.6 billion in base discretionary spending for the Defense Department in 2019, and $598.9 billion in 2020."

In contrast, Shanahan said the 2020 budget would be a “masterpiece.”

“This is where many of the bets in terms of innovation and some of the new technology will take place,” he said.

However, a failure by lawmakers to repeal the military spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 could derail those plans and slow down the acquisition of new capabilities, Shanahan acknowledged. “That’s the real risk,” he said.

A change in the makeup of Congress could also put a damper on the Pentagon’s plans, noted Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

By the time the fiscal year 2020 budget request is released next year, Democrats could be in charge on the Hill if they rack up victories in the 2018 midterm elections, he said.

“That could dramatically change the direction of things and how much Congress is willing to appropriate for defense” in 2020 and beyond, he said. A Democrat-led Congress would likely approve more modest military spending increases than one controlled by the GOP, he added.

That prospect ought to light a fire under Republican lawmakers to try to pass the 2019 budget as quickly as possible, Harrison said.

In hearings this spring, “defense hawks in the Republican Congress may be asking defense officials, ‘Hey, what is it you’re planning in FY20 and can we go ahead and move that into FY19?’” he added.

Topics: Budget, Defense Department

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