SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — President Donald Trump came into office pledging the largest defense spending spree since the administration of Ronald Reagan — assuring the troops that they would see “beautiful new planes and beautiful new equipment.”
But that vision remains little more than a mirage, top Pentagon officials, lawmakers and defense industry executives lamented during a gathering this weekend at Reagan’s presidential library — undermined by congressional gridlock on spending priorities and a tax overhaul expected to add more than a trillion dollars to the national debt.
“Nobody wants to pay more taxes, everyone wants to have the programs they like protected and everybody wants defense … and they want the deficit to go away,” Gen. Robert Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said in an interview, echoing the sentiments of several leading advocates for a more robustly funded military. “The math just isn’t there.”
During his insurgent presidential campaign, Trump promised to expand the Army from 476,000 active-duty to troops to 540,000. He embraced the traditional Republican gospel that the Navy needs to be much larger, pledging to boost the number of warships from 275 to 350. More missile defense systems, an upgraded nuclear arsenal and hundreds of additional fighter aircraft were also on his wish list.
“You’ve been lacking equipment,” Trump told troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida in February. “We’re going to load it up.”
But lawmakers and the administration have taken few concrete steps to lock in any sustained increase in defense spending close to the 3 percent to 5 percent a year that Defense Secretary James Mattis says is needed to make the vision a reality.
Even a down payment on the proposed buildup is being held hostage on Capitol Hill: Republicans are aiming to pass a stopgap spending measure to prevent a government shutdown when funding runs out on Friday — but that would just keep agencies funded at last year’s levels.
And despite widespread agreement that the military is under significant strain, Congress has failed to eliminate the strict caps on spending that it instituted in 2011, which limit defense money that is not directly related to overseas military operations.
While lawmakers have increased the caps several times since 2013, Republicans and Democrats have clashed over whether increases to the defense budget should be matched by equal increases to domestic spending. As Friday’s funding deadline nears, Republicans are again pushing for a deal that would increase defense spending by tens of billions of dollars, while Democrats are aiming to extract even more money for domestic agencies.
The 2011 budget law allows only $549 billion for national defense this year, far below the $626 billion base budget that both the House and Senate endorsed in their annual defense policy legislation in November.
“There is this assumption that there is this broad support for an increase in the defense budget, and everyone sort of feels good about that,” Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, admonished attendees at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum, which was sponsored by nearly two dozen leading Pentagon contractors. “I don’t see it happening, OK? When you look at what’s going on with our appropriations discussion, we are no closer to an appropriations agreement today than we were last February, because as much as people want to spend more money on defense, they also want tax cuts. They also want a balanced budget.
“Congress has to vote to change the Budget Control Act,” he added. “And if we were so hellbent to do that, if it was such a priority, why are we sitting here in December and we still haven’t done it?”
Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, defended the president’s efforts, telling the forum that “what the president has done has dramatically increased defense spending to address the most egregious gaps.” (Trump has gotten some extra defense spending approved through a supplemental budget request, and has praised the passage of a defense authorization bill that recommends — but doesn’t actually provide — additional dollars for the military.)
“This is the beginning of a recovery in military capabilities and military capacity,” McMaster added.
But he also derided the lack of action in the Republican-controlled Congress to back up the push for a bigger military with the funding to make it happen.
“We need an end to the defense sequester,” McMaster said of the spending limits that still drive budget levels, adding that “each of our services aren’t big enough.”
The Pentagon’s second-ranking official also bemoaned the hurdles — immediate and long term — that are hobbling Trump’s proposed defense buildup.
“Artificial constraints still hold our national security hostage,” Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told the gathering, in his first major public appearance.
Shanahan blamed the prospect of even more stopgap funding measures as a substitute for annual appropriations bills and “disagreements in Congress that affect timely decision-making.”
Defense hawks on Capitol Hill, however, point to broad consensus for more defense spending, most recently exhibited by bipartisan support for the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets Pentagon policy and recommends funding levels well above the budget law.
“You’re not going to rebuild in one year, so we’ll need to continue rebuilding,” House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said in an interview.
“As far as changing the trajectory, now is the critical time,” he added. “Again, look at what Congress has done. Look at what the president’s said. This is the time to turn it around. Now.”
But defense experts also gave Trump his share of the blame for a lack of leadership on the issue.
“What defense buildup?” remarked Katherine Blakeley, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. “You have a professed goal of having a buildup, but I haven’t seen any kind of real engagement by the administration on … putting in the legislative groundwork to make that happen.”
“To go back to a Reagan-era tagline,” she added, “where’s the beef?”
Others asserted that the president’s own domestic agenda is likely to crowd out the spending his promises would require.
“If all Trump wanted was a big defense increase, he could have had it,” said Loren Thompson, a longtime consultant to major defense companies. “But he also wanted tax cuts, entitlement reform and infrastructure investment. Something had to give, and usually in peacetime what gives is military spending — especially military spending for new weapons.”
That tension was on display at one of the sessions this weekend when Michael Strianese, chairman and CEO of the major Pentagon contractor L3 Technologies, said that “I would rather work on an increased defense budget than a tax cut.”
One of the most senior defense-minded Democrats also bemoaned the impact that other priorities of Trump and Republicans in Congress are having on the Pentagon getting the funds it needs to rebuild.
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, told POLITICO that the tax cut the Senate passed early Saturday morning is likely to deprive other needs — including those of the military.
“That is $1.5 trillion that we cannot devote to defense,” he said, citing estimates of how tax cuts will enlarge the deficit during the coming decade. “This is just arithmetic.”
Even as the Trump administration requested more military spending for this year, Pentagon officials were managing expectations — telling Congress that that the buildup would not kick in until the administration’s upcoming budget for the 2019 fiscal year, which starts next October.
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said he hopes Congress will still reach an agreement that lets the administration put at least some of Trump’s pledges into motion.
“We are going to try in  and  to go for growth,” he told POLITICO, expressing confidence that Congress can at least come up with a plan for the next two years to fund the government that also accommodates an increase in defense spending.
But he acknowledged doubts that Congress can do that, even if it lifts the budget caps.
“At the end of the day, this is all about math,” he said. “You don’t want to raise taxes. You don’t want to cut benefits, and we want to grow the military. It is literally impossible. The math says you can’t do it.”
Until the path is clear, military leaders like Neller say they will have to do the best they can.
“Just pass the budget, give us some certainty,” the Marine commandant pleaded to Congress in the interview, “and we will give you the best military – the best Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard that we can afford based on the money you appropriate.”
Another continuing resolution that keeps spending at current levels “is not an effective way for us to manage the money and to do the things we need to do to regain our readiness and prepare.”
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