Experts Say Aligning FY2020 Budget With Defense Strategy Could Result in Navy Cuts

January 31, 2019 9:58 PM
USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) during an underway on Dec. 2, 2018. US Navy Photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Defense analysts expect President Donald Trump’s Fiscal Year 2020 national security budget will request about $750 billion, a funding level they consider barely enough to sustain the Pentagon’s current operations.

But the dollar amount isn’t as significant as how the money is spent and the types of tradeoffs the Pentagon makes to balance paying for current programs and aligning spending with the National Defense Strategy (NDS), said Kathleen Hicks, the Henry A. Kissinger chair and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Hicks, speaking Thursday during a panel discussion about the pending FY 2020 budget request, explained that this budget presents some challenges for the Pentagon’s planners. The FY 2018 budget was designed to improve readiness, and the FY 2019 budget focused on joint capabilities. CSIS released a FY 2020 budget request analysis Thursday afternoon.

The FY 2020 request was called a “masterpiece” by acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, Hicks said, “meaning the 2020 budget was going to be the first time the (National Defense) Strategy was fully threaded through the budget.”

Generally, an annual budget increase of about 3 percent would sustain the Pentagon’s current level of operations. A $750 billion request is about a 4-percent bump from last year’s request. However, if the Pentagon is serious about aligning its spending with the NDS, then some long-standing priorities have to be rethought, Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at CSIS, said.

“Fully implementing the National Defense Strategy means you’ll need tradeoffs,” Harrison said. “Things have to go. The 355-ship Navy is out the window if you want to implement the plan.”

Specifically, when studying the NDS, Harrison said aircraft carriers and amphibious ships do not align with the strategy. However, not funding carrier and amphibious ship purchases, Harrison added, is “politically impossible,” he said.

The frigate program, though, is one Harrison said could be easier to cancel. Again, it’s not clear how the frigates fit into the NDS. A contract award is expected in FY 2020, so this program could be cut to fund other priorities considered vital to the NDS. The FFG(X) is now estimated to cost about $800 million per hull, for a 20-ship program.

Other services would likely see cuts as well. The Air Force could have to scale back its plans to expand the number of squadrons. The Army might have to curtail spending on some armored vehicles.

It’s also important to remember the spending plan ultimately appropriated can be very different from what the president requests. Congress can adjust funding for programs it considers a priority. Also, Congress has to contend with spending caps put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011, Harrison said.

There’s support on Capitol Hill for abolishing the caps, but Harrison said the deadline for taking action is nearly a year away, while FY 2020 starts on October 1. If the spending caps aren’t dealt with before the fiscal year begins, Harrison said to expect a temporary funding bill – a continuing resolution (CR) – to pass, holding the Pentagon to FY 2019 spending levels and prohibiting new programs from starting.

“A CR is very likely,” Harrison said, because the deadline is so far off. “I would love to be proven wrong on that.”

Ben Werner

Ben Werner

Ben Werner is a staff writer for USNI News. He has worked as a freelance writer in Busan, South Korea, and as a staff writer covering education and publicly traded companies for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., Savannah Morning News in Savannah, Ga., and Baltimore Business Journal. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from New York University.

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