In a nod to fiscal hawks, President Trump has announced that he’d like the members of his cabinet to trim their budgets by 5 percent next year. Reports later confirmed that the commander in chief was not inclined to give his defense secretary a pass on this tasker. This came as a surprise to the Pentagon and national-security watchers. After all, President Trump ran on a platform of rebuilding the military and signed off on a robust national-defense strategy earlier this year; reforming the Pentagon was to continue, but budget cuts were to end. It now appears the military will see a swift return to the vicious cycle of Washington budget-cutting and caps. Unless the president reverses his guidance, 2018 will be remembered by the military as a fleeting Trump bump rather than a Reagan-style rebuild.
The administration’s 2018 budget not only gave the Pentagon a temporary reprieve from sequestration — the Obama-era automatic budget cuts — but also included increased funding to repair neglected platforms and restore military readiness. This was an important and much-needed step, but it was only a first move in a broader plan to rebuild the military. Accompanying the nearly 10 percent budget increase was a defense strategy that forcefully called upon the military to do more: Win the competition against a resurgent China, deter a revanchist Russia, counter Iranian and North Korean aggression, and, lest we forget, defeat ISIS and prevail in Afghanistan. This ambitious set of objectives, spanning multiple continents and warfighting domains, demanded an equally ambitious set of capabilities and investments.
The debate following the release of Secretary Mattis’s strategy focused on how much more funding the military needed — not whether more resources were required. Could the strategy be executed with budgets only keeping pace with inflation, or did the military need “real growth”? Few, if any, thought we could realize our strategic ambitions while returning to lower budgets.
The Pentagon promised that the budget headed to Congress in 2019 would be the full expression of Secretary Mattis’s vision for the military; it appears now the strategy failed to account for its biggest challenge: a Washington, D.C., spending battle.
To be sure, our country’s fiscal outlook is troubling. Growing deficits combined with rising interest rates make for a toxic fiscal cocktail that could very well blow up discretionary budgets. In a few years, the annual bill for servicing the debt could cost more than the entire defense budget. Yet, as every budget minder knows, the road to fiscal health won’t come from riding on the Defense Department or any other agency for that matter. Solving the debt requires following a road less traveled, where entitlements are on the table. While the outcome of the midterms is up in the air, no one expects Congress — regardless of who wins the majority — to go there.
So, should we give the Pentagon a pass from cuts in 2019? I vote yes, but with a string attached: Hold 5 percent of Pentagon funding in abeyance until the department shows it’s reforming and executing the strategy the president has called for.
The Pentagon has a knack for spending the same way year after year without making meaningful changes to reflect new priorities. If the military competition with China and Russia demands new investments in 21st-century technologies, the Pentagon’s modernization accounts should reflect a material change, not a few symbolic pennies on the Pentagon dollar. If we’re going to fight smarter in the Middle East with fewer high-end conventional assets, then we should see a shift on the ground. If the strategy is aimed at great-power competition, but we’re still spending the same share of our resources on counterterrorism in ungoverned spaces, then we’re not changing.
Simply cutting 5 percent from the defense budget won’t make a dent in our deficit; it also won’t reform the way the military spends its dollars or make the department a leaner, more agile organization. Sequestration showed that arbitrary cuts harm national security and fail to force reform at the Pentagon — a 5 percent cut would be no different. Instead, the Pentagon needs to be doggedly managed to ensure its precious resources are spent strategically, and to prevent inertia and status-quoism from winning the day. The president should use the 5 percent to demand the military reform and rebuild.