White House Proposes DOD Budget Increase Through Huge Jump in War Funding Level

The Office of Management and Budget released the White House's fiscal 2020 budget request on Monday. Air Force photo by SrA. Perry Aston.

The White House’s fiscal 2020 budget request proposes a large increase in Pentagon funding, largely coming from an almost $100 billion jump in the overseas contingency operations fund.

The request, laid out by the Office of Management and Budget on Monday, was light on details and immediately received criticism from both sides on Capitol Hill. It calls for $750 billion in total defense spending—up from $716 billion in fiscal 2019—made possible by cuts to other governmental departments. The Pentagon’s share is $576 billion in base funding, $9 billion in “emergency requirements” to include the proposed border wall and hurricane recovery, and $165 billion in OCO funding.

The OCO request is $96 billion higher than the authorized amount for fiscal 2019, a gambit that is likely dead on arrival in Congress. The budget proposal increases the use of OCO to avoid Budget Control Act spending caps, and to fund “direct war costs, enduring in-theater support, and certain base budget requirements.”

“I think the idea of having this massive OCO is not one that pretty much anybody takes seriously,” House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters March 7. “The real negotiations are going to have to happen on Capitol Hill. Like last year, where you put DOD and [the Department of Health and Human Services] together, I think there’s a way forward.”

Withdrawing troops from Syria and possibly Afghanistan could affect the amount of money DOD needs in OCO next year, Thornberry added, but the US still has to support its allies on the ground in Syria and Afghanistan, as well as maintain a counterterrorism presence in the latter. The American Enterprise Institute projects pulling out around 8,600 troops would save only $3 billion of this year’s $69 billion OCO budget, according to an op-ed published by Defense One.

The Pentagon will lay out specific plans in a series of briefings on Tuesday. The budget proposal released Monday offers topline priorities but not specific funding levels for individual weapons buys or other programs.

Most notably, the budget specifically proposes the creation of the Space Force inside the Air Force—pending congressional approval—in fiscal 2020.

Standing up a new branch headquarters with about 200 people would require a first installment of $72 million in fiscal 2020, according to a copy of the Defense Department’s Space Force proposal obtained by Air Force Magazine. Missions would begin moving over to the Space Force in fiscal 2021 and 2022.

“Staffing for the fiscal 2020 Space Force headquarters … will consist of a mix of military and civilian personnel with key military leadership positions filled by individuals from each military department,” the proposal states. “Some personnel will be transferred from the existing military services, some new personnel would be hired, and some personnel would be temporarily detailed to the Space Force to provide surge capacity and expertise during stand-up.”

Overall, about 15,000 personnel are expected to transfer into the Space Force over time. Nearly all of its annual budget will come from existing accounts.

Defense Department-wide, total end strength would grow by about 10,000 to hit 2.14 million Active Duty and reserve military members under the new request, accompanied by a pay raise of 3.1 percent.

The budget also confirms the Air Force will receive new F-15s, along with buying an undisclosed number of F-35As and pursuing improvements to F-16s. The Air Force will receive funding for the B-21 and more KC-46s. The Air Force and Navy combined will buy 110 fighter aircraft under the proposal.

The purchase of F-15Xs was requested by the military as part of its future fighter aircraft plans, White House Acting Budget Director Russell Vought told reporters on Monday.

“We go along the lines of what the Defense Department has requested with their five-year defense program,” he said. “It’s an allocation of different planes, including the F-35 and the F/A-18 Super Hornets, so this is something that has been requested by the military and we think it’s something that will make sense when Congress considers it.”

However, USAF leaders recently said their initial budget request did not include F-15s, though the service needs new airplanes. “Our budget proposal that we initially submitted … did not include additional fourth generation aircraft,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium.

Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group, wonders whether the Pentagon will maintain its planned level of F-35 procurement even if money is diverted to buy Boeing’s F-15X.

“We don’t know if the announced F-35 cuts come from the A-model,” he said in an email Monday, “and the root rationale for the whole F-15X thing remains a mystery.”

Heritage Foundation Senior Defense Research Fellow JV Venable expects to see 48 F-35As and “between six and 12 F-15Xs”—a decision he said is a mistake.

“Executing a buy plan for a ‘new’ F-15X over the next 10 years would mean we are still buying fourth-generation fighters 20 years after we accepted delivery of our last F-22, and makes even less sense than buying F-4s would have [been] made in 1984,” Venable said. “The Air Force needs to acquire 72 fighter aircraft a year to ensure it has the capacity and capability required to meet the National Military Strategy—and with no other fifth-generation alternative, those aircraft need to be F-35s.”

The budget proposes investments in the entire nuclear triad, including ballistic missile-touting submarines, strategic bombers, air-launched cruise missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and associated command, control, and communications systems. Those plans are likely to cause friction with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who recently said the US doesn’t need ICBMs to maintain an effective deterrent and has questioned the rationale for the Long-Range Standoff Weapon.

While the Air Force has touted the speedy pace of developing its Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, the Fiscal 2020 budget will reveal whether the fielding schedules for GBSD and LRSO are still on track.

Lawmakers last year asked the Air Force to accelerate both weapons programs, said Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat-reduction policy at the Arms Control Association. No concrete details of how that might be possible have yet emerged.

“The [future years defense plan] in the fiscal 2020 request shows no growth above inflation and actually envisions a reduction in spending for fiscal 2021,” Reif added. “This, along with other internal and budget pressures facing national defense spending, will pose a significant affordability challenge to the nuclear recapitalization effort.”

For the Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft enterprise, seeing a budget profile for the “Loyal Wingman” teaming initiative would be a key sign the service is progressing on the high-profile project, according to Dan Gettinger, who directs Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone. He’ll also have an eye on procurement and modification spending for the MQ-9 fleet, as well as funding for wide-area imagery sensors.

How the Air Force is approaching near-peer competition will loom over every program figure, from emerging research to major modernization priorities.

“The main question will be the pace of the next tier of priorities [T-X, battlespace awareness, and light attack], and how emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and directed energy can be incorporated into the existing force,” Andrew Hunter, who directs the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.

The Air Force’s approach “will be paced in many ways” by how the other services tackle new concepts like multidomain operations, he added, and it’s yet to be seen what role the Air Force will play in modernizing the space enterprise.

Some scholars said Monday the proposal may face a steep uphill climb. Mackenzie Eaglen and Rick Berger at the American Enterprise Institute released talking points Monday arguing the fiscal 2020 request shouldn’t include border wall funding, is too low to rebuild the military, doesn’t align with the National Defense Strategy, and ignores actual resource needs.

“The White House and the Office of Management and Budget are not taking the defense budget seriously,” Eaglen and Berger wrote. “They’ve made a new two-year spending deal less likely, increasing the chance of automatic across-the-board cuts under sequestration.”