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How the defense budget falls short of strategic demands

USS Gerald R. Ford, a Naval aircraft carrier
The USS Gerald R. Ford, the first in a new class of U.S. aircraft carriers. Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ridge Leoni / U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Secretary Mattis’s National Defense Strategy targets readiness, lethality and reforms to better counter great power competition from China and Russia. Yet President Trump’s budget calls for only a 2% annual increase in defense spending — enough to dig the Pentagon out of its current hole, but not enough to pursue the pivot envisioned in Mattis’s NDS or the rebuild touted by Trump on the campaign trail.

Here’s where some of those promises stand:

  • Grow the Army rapidly (the budget adds just 4,000 active duty soldiers)
  • Build a 350-ship Navy (now projected to take until the 2050s)
  • Increase the size of the combat Air Force (two active fighter squadrons will be established in 2019, but one Guard squadron will disbanded)

Although Mattis has said that the spending requests for 2018 and 2019 will restore the U.S. “to a position of primacy,” that remains an open question. The long-term growth projected of 2-3% per year, is a far cry from the 3-5% real annual growth he has previously called for to sustain the health of the force.

In fact, the Pentagon’s five-year budget plan shows inflation-only adjustments, with virtually zero real growth. The budget actually loses ground over time due to inflationgiven that CBO projects it will be 2% annually, so we may see negative real growth for the rest of Trump’s tenure.

Why it matters: Given the deteriorating international situation, the likely outlook for U.S. defense spending dims the prospects for Mattis’s long-term strategic goals — and for the military's ability to catch up after years of atrophy.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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