Trump’s ‘Skinny’ Budget Disappoints But There’s Still Good News on Spending

Trump’s ‘Skinny’ Budget Disappoints But There’s Still Good News on SpendingThe Pentagon is backing away from expensive F-35s in its latest budget request.

Budget & Tax, National Security,  | Quick Take
Mar 22, 2017  | By  | 4 min read | Print Article

Originally published on March 22, 2017 in U.S. News & World Report

Last week, the Trump administration released its “skinny” blueprint for the fiscal year 2018 federal budget.

To call it skinny is to understate the lack of detail in this request. It was barely half as long as President Barack Obama’s skinny budget and slightly more than a third of President George W. Bush’s. It contained no projections past the next fiscal year and no mandatory spending (e.g. Social Security and Medicare) or revenue projections at all.

The entire Department of Defense request is boiled down to slightly less than two pages. Considering this is the initial justification for spending $639 billion, this seems a little light on detail. Thirteen short paragraphs to describe that much spending translates to $49 billion per paragraph. Given the lack of detail, there isn’t much I can say about the request for Pentagon spending for the coming fiscal year, except that it is a lot of money.

Luckily, I can talk about the supplemental request for the current fiscal year (2017) that the Pentagon made public at the same time as the fiscal year 2018 request. This request for an additional $30 billion will be layered on top of what the Pentagon is already getting for fiscal year 2017, more than $582 billion.

There is some good news in this supplemental request. First, only about one-sixth of the money is for the Overseas Contingency Operations or war-fighting account. And of that $5 billion-plus request, the descriptions of how the money is to be spent all seem to actually be overseas – “ongoing Afghanistan operations,” “defeat ISIS,” another name for the Islamic State group, and the like. I applaud the effort to strip spending that belongs in the Defense base budget from this off-budget account.

Other good news for taxpayers is buried deep in the details of the supplemental request. Of the $30 billion for the Pentagon close to half of it, $13.5 billion, is for weapons procurement. When you peel that onion a little, you find that the Department of the Navy is allocated an additional roughly $3.5 billion for aircraft procurement. I use the term of art, “Department of the Navy” deliberately, as the Department of the Navy includes both the Navy and the Marine Corps. That means the Navy pays for, among other things, all Marine Corps aircraft.Both the Navy and the Marine Corps are in line to eventually fly the monstrously expensive F-35 fighter. In fact, the Marines are already flying operational F-35s. Congressional supporters of the F-35 take every opportunity to try to increase spending on the program. But a closer look at the details of this supplemental request shows that the Department of the Navy is spending none of the additional $3.5 billion on either the Navy or Marine variant of the F-35. Instead, they spend that money on five other types of aircraft, broken down this way:

Possible COVID-19 Response and Stimulus Package
  • 24 additional F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets for $2.3 billion
  • 2 additional V-22 Tilt-Rotor Aircraft for $171 million
  • Modifications for the V-22 for $99 million
  • 6 additional P-8 Patrol aircraft for $920 million
  • 2 additional C-40A, a military version of the Boeing 737, for $85 million

My organization has argued for some time that there are less expensive alternatives to the F-35 that will bridge the gap to the future of unmanned aircraft. And occasionally the Navy has requested more Super Hornets. But the trick to saving money is to not simultaneously continue buying the F-35. Sounds like that message is getting through, at least with the Navy. I hope this is a trend that will continue. But until the “skinny budget” is fattened up with greater details, I can’t confirm that.