During the 2016 presidential election and his first year in the White House, President Trump often promised to significantly increase military spending. He sounded that theme again last month in releasing his National Security Strategy, saying “historic investments” were required to protect the country and advance its global influence.
As is often the case with big political promises, however, a fundamental question has been neglected: How will it all be paid for?
After all, the federal government is already projected under current law to add $11.5 trillion to the federal debt over the next decade. That includes the deficit-financed tax cuts that Congress and Trump approved last month.
In addition, lawmakers and the president are discussing other spending increases, notably a national infrastructure program, disaster relief and stabilization of the health care system.
One thing is certain about Trump’s proposed military buildup: It won’t be cheap. Last month the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report that provides useful guidance on that issue for elected officials and the American public.
The CBO report, “Analysis of the Long-Term Costs of the Administration’s Goals for the Military,” estimates that inflation-adjusted costs for the Defense Department would climb from the $575 billion requested for the current fiscal year to $688 billion in 2027. Those numbers are for the basic military budget and do not include funding for overseas conflicts, notably in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
The administration requested $65 billion for the conflicts abroad (officially called Overseas Contingency Operations) for 2018. The CBO did not project those costs in future years because of uncertainties about current conflicts and the possibility of others.
After adjusting for inflation, CBO says, Trump’s basic military budget request for Fiscal 2018 is 3 percent more than what was envisioned under the Obama administration’s final Future Years Defense Program.
For subsequent years, CBO estimates, the Trump administration’s goals for the military “would result in steady increases in costs so that by 2027, the base budget (in 2018 dollars) would reach $688 billion, more than 20 percent larger than peak spending during the 1980s.”
The CBO’s new analysis and estimates are based on the Trump administration’s Fiscal 2018 request for the military and other official documents, including congressional testimony by Defense officials.
The new report points to several factors that would contribute to steadily rising defense costs in the coming years. CBO estimates, for example, that the number of people serving in the military would rise by more than 237,000, an increase of roughly 10 percent.
The Navy would increase its battle fleet by nearly 30 percent. Defense spending on new weapons and weapons research would increase as well.
CBO anticipates that defense costs would also rise because “growth in expenses for military personnel and for operation and maintenance . . . would continue to outpace inflation.”
As CBO notes, national defense funding for 2018 through 2021 is subject to spending caps established by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA).
If the Defense Department’s costs grow in line with CBO projections, and the costs of other agencies that are funded in the national defense budget grow at the rate of inflation, the budget office estimates that “total national defense costs from 2018 through 2021 would exceed the BCA caps by $295 billion.”
It is worth noting that some Republicans in Congress seek more money for the military than even Trump has proposed.
The CBO’s sobering estimates should give elected officials pause. Are military spending increases on the scale proposed by Trump truly essential to the nation’s security?
If so, he and lawmakers who believe military spending must rise sharply have a responsibility to present responsible and realistic proposals to fund this buildup while ensuring that the nation’s domestic priorities are sufficiently funded as well.
Simply pulling out the federal credit card -- as Washington did last month on the tax bill -- is not the answer. In the long run, building up more and more government debt would weaken the country, reduce its ability to respond to new challenges, and make it less secure.