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The Pentagon’s most powerful allies in Congress have scored a major victory on the House side of the Capitol, securing an agreement to increase military funding by $28.5 billion above the Trump administration’s request.

The $631.5 billion in base defense spending endorsed by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry for fiscal year 2018 falls short of the $640 billion he originally wanted. He agreed to the lower amount after it became clear that the House Budget Committee would not go much further than $621 billion.

A HASC aide sought to put this in perspective. In the larger scheme of things, the funding that Thornberry is proposing in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act should be viewed as an important first step toward rebuilding the military, the aide told reporters. She insisted that this budget would put the military on a “good trajectory” toward even larger budgets down the road.

The HASC is scheduled to vote on the chairman’s proposal Wednesday. In a draft summary of his NDAA blueprint, Thornberry outlined in stark terms why he supports more spending: “We have too many planes that cannot fly, too many ships that cannot sail, too many soldiers who cannot deploy, while too many threats are gathering. For six years, we have been just getting by, cutting resources as the world becomes more dangerous.”

The House Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, unveiled a draft of the fiscal year 2018 Defense Appropriations bill that gives the Pentagon $18.4 billion above the president’s request. Thornberry would inject an additional $10 billion to the $65 billion overseas war budget to make up the difference.

This is all good news for the Pentagon and even better news for the defense industry as the bulk of the increase in the House Appropriations draft is for purchases of big-ticket weapons. Also, a positive signal for defense contractors is that spending on new hardware is increasingly viewed on Capitol Hill as a key part of the military readiness equation, whereas in the past readiness was only associated with training and equipment maintenance funds.  

The Appropriations Committee bill includes a combined $233.7 billion for research, development, and procurement of weapons -- 19 percent more than what the Pentagon received in 2017. It would represent one of the largest single-year increases in recent decades, noted industry analyst Byron Callan, of Capital Alpha Partners. The base budget adds $12.6 billion for procurement and $1 billion for research and development. Another $7 billion for new weapons would be added to the overseas war budget. Some notable adds: 14 more F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft than the Pentagon requested and 10 more F/A-18 fighter jets for the Navy. The House Appropriations defense subcommittee is marking up the fiscal 2018 defense appropriations bill this week in closed sessions.

Among the noteworthy items in Thornberry’s blueprint is a $2.5 billion boost to the Pentagon’s $10 billion missile defense program. He also calls for 87 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 17 more than the president’s request. The chairman also adds four MV-22 tiltrotor aircraft for the Marine Corps and eight F/A-18s. It seeks five more ships for the Navy and funds new armored combat vehicle upgrades for the Army. Thornberry further recommends an increase of 17,000 Army troops and a 2.4 percent pay raise for armed service members, compared to 2.1 percent sought by the Pentagon.

Hopes for a spending bonanza may be short lived, however, as the fight in the Senate will be much tougher. When it comes to the 2018 defense budget, the only number the Pentagon should care about right now is 60, observed Todd Harrison, defense and national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I would urge caution about all of the talk of a higher defense topline,” Harrison told RealClearDefense. The two House committees may agree to a higher number, but it doesn’t mean much yet, he noted. For these numbers to become reality, Congress will need to amend the 2011 Budget Control Act spending caps, and to do that they need to get 60 votes in the Senate. That is a tall order, as Republicans would need support from Democrats who will demand domestic spending increases to match defense. “So the real issue to watch is what kind of budget deal they negotiate with Senate Democrats, and we are a long way from seeing that happen,” Harrison said.

Former Senate Armed Services Committee adviser Bill Greenwalt predicts Congress will resort to its usual budget tricks and workarounds to get more money for defense. “I'm not sure yet how the Democrats are going to eventually play this,” he said. “To maintain domestic spending at current levels, they will have to blow the BCA caps.” Defense should go up regardless, he said, because Congress has a “relief valve” in the overseas war budget that is not subject to the BCA restrictions. “Sure, it is a gimmick,” said Greenwalt, but it will continue to be used until the law is repealed or expires in 2021, whichever comes first.

The HASC aide sought to downplay the assertion that Thornberry’s $640 billion target was unrealistic to begin with. Regardless of what Congress ends up appropriating, the aide said, “there is optimism that we will see real growth. This bill is about a lot more than numbers. The chairman said we’re still moving in the direction of 640 billion. He still thinks it’s the right number.”

The Senate’s staunchest defense hawk, Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, has long called for a $640 billion base defense budget. His markup of the 2018 NDAA is expected to come out this week.

Industry consultant James McAleese, of McAleese & Associates, predicts McCain will want to make a strong statement rebuking the Trump administration’s proposed $603 billion base defense budget. McCain’s swipes at Deputy Secretary Nominee Patrick Shanahan during his recent confirmation hearing was a “message” directed at Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, McAleese suggested. “Chairman McCain is visibly upset over the structural disconnect” between the defense committees and Mattis over how much funding the Pentagon needs.

In hearings over the past month, McCain pressed Mattis to embrace his proposed $640 billion budget but the secretary stood firm defending President Trump’s smaller request. McAleese said McCain was hoping Mattis would meet him halfway and endorse a $620 billion to $630 billion topline. Thornberry also has criticized Trump’s budget but suggested the $603 billion blueprint was not the handiwork of Mattis but of White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a former Tea Party lawmaker whose priority is to not deepen the federal deficit.

The fate of the Pentagon’s budget, ultimately, is tied to how Congress chooses to deal with conflicting and impractical promises to increase spending, cut taxes and not widen the deficit.

Foreign policy experts warn that underlying the defense spending debate is the reality that the military increasingly is being asked to do more, and that funding levels should reflect that. “I am now nervous about the widening gap between America’s military obligations and the resourcing we are committing,” Kori Schake, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, writes in Defense One. “What’s worsening the situation is that the Trump administration is both expanding requirements and contracting spending.” Trump’s budget is 3 percent higher than what Obama had planned, she noted. “Despite political grandstanding about the ‘historic’ size of the increase and a pledge to rebuild America’s armed forces, that is a very modest bump, probably inadequate even to rebuild current readiness shortfalls.”

 

Sandra Erwin is a national security and defense reporter for RealClearDefense. She can be reached at serwin@realcleardefense.com. Follow Sandra on Twitter @Sandra_I_Erwin.

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