Congress should hike its new defense budget cap deal by $17 billion and increase the size of the U.S. military by 26,500 troops in the coming year, according to new recommendations by the influential Heritage Foundation.

The conservative think tank’s report, obtained by the Washington Examiner, aims to fast-track a rebuilding of the military and is meant as a guide for lawmakers as they begin to write the next National Defense Authorization Act, a massive piece of legislation that will shape the military and its policies in 2019.

Recommendations from Heritage are worth watching, as President Trump closely followed the think tank's lead in laying out his vision for a military buildup during his campaign for president. Its new NDAA report comes as the White House and Congress contemplate major increases in defense spending for this year and next.

“The main thrust of the proposal throughout the services is restoring readiness and getting our force to a point that it is a modern and ready force,” said Frederico Bartels, the policy analyst for defense budgeting at Heritage who edited the report.

New defense cap

Heritage proposes $664 billion in base defense spending in 2019, which is $17 billion above the $647 billion baseline that is part of the two-year budget deal hammered out by Republican and Democratic leadership this week.

“Sure, there might be little appetite now for re-litigating the issue in Congress, but that does not mean that it is not the right thing to do,” Bartels wrote in an email.

The budget deal in Congress also includes $69 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, bringing its total spending limit to $716 billion. That is the same total amount for defense that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Trump are expected to unveil Monday in the administration’s new budget request.

Heritage did not include an OCO recommendation in its report and has opposed the use of the overseas war account for daily military needs, though the practice has become commonplace in recent years. Bartels said the think tank will likely estimate a $60 billion placeholder for the account, but the need for OCO remains unpredictable.

More troops

Heritage’s recommended funding would go toward a major hike of 26,500 service members as well as increases in aircraft and ships across the services.

“We see the increased force structure as a way to combat that decreased readiness because you have more people to execute the same amount of tasks that they are given,” Bartels said. “For too long, we have asked our military to do more with less people. We need to reverse that trend.”

The Army would grow the most under the Heritage plan, adding 8,500 active-duty soldiers for a total strength of 492,000. Another 1,000 soldiers would be added to the Guard and Reserve.

That would put the service on track to become even larger over the next five years and follow the same annual increase directed by Congress for 2018 after Trump had proposed zero growth in the service in May.

“Reaching the ... goal of 520,000 active-duty soldiers by 2023 will be difficult if changes are not made now,” the Heritage report says. “Mindful of today’s recruiting challenges exacerbated by national trends in which only 29 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 are even qualified to join the military, Congress must continue to incrementally expand the Army in the 2019 NDAA.”

Heritage recommends the Navy add 6,000 total sailors. The Air Force should add 8,000. The Marine Corps, 3,000.

The extra sailors, along with more at-sea training and ship maintenance, are needed to ease the strains on the fleet that were underscored by the deadly collisions of the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald destroyers in the western Pacific last summer, according to Heritage.

Ships and aircraft

Congress should fund 12 Navy ships, including two Virginia-class nuclear submarines, in the 2019 budget, Heritage recommends. That is five more than the Navy has planned and tracks closely with the 13 ships lawmakers authorized for this year.

The Navy’s struggle to meet its needs with the current fleet became “painfully clear” in 2017 with the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions and devastating storms, according to Heritage.

“The urgent deployment of three amphibious warships for hurricane relief showed the lack of surge capacity of this undersized force, delaying the first F-35B deployment on the USS Wasp by over three months, postponing the USS Bonhomme Richard’s modernization, and scaling back the most significant annual Atlantic Fleet expeditionary warfare training exercise,” the report says.

The Navy would get 18 more of its F-35Cs, but the Air Force fleet would see the largest increase in the advanced fifth-generation fighter jets.

The Air Force was authorized by Congress to buy 56 of the aircraft this year, but Heritage recommends a buy of 80 in the 2019 budget. The recommendation would speed up purchases of the F-35A variant and actually decrease the total number the service would acquire over the coming years, according to Bartels.

“It’s an accelerated buy,” he said.