Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pulled off a major political win late last month by lining up $716 billion for defense in President Trump’s upcoming budget request to Congress.
That is a 7 percent increase over Trump's request for the previous year, and Mattis was upbeat when he confirmed the top-line number for the first time to reporters during a visit to the Pentagon on Friday.
Congress passed a $700 billion defense authorization in December, which was a major hike in its own right, and Trump is expected to unveil the $716 billion request for fiscal 2019 on Feb. 12.
“I’m very happy with $700 [billion] for this year and $716 [billion] for next,” Mattis said.
The money would be a victory for Mattis over other budget hawks in the administration, and would begin to bankroll a buildup and modernization of the military, as well as improvements to the nuclear arsenal.
“Look at the strategy, and you’ll see where it’s going,” said Mattis, who unveiled the Nuclear Posture Review on Friday, the latest in a series of new strategy documents.
That sunny outlook stands in stark contrast to the Pentagon’s current financial predicament.
Four months into the fiscal year, Congress has not given Mattis an annual funding bill. Its series of temporary budget measures, which started as an annoyance in September, is now becoming a painful pinch on the military’s training and weapons buying.
“There is a real readiness impact of this, because if you get too far into the year, you cannot recover,” said Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a breakfast meeting with reporters this week. “Our experience tells us four to six months is that point in the year where you’re past the point of no return, so units will not be able to recover the training what they have lost.”
Selva said the military may get money from Congress too late to cram all its acquisition programs into this fiscal year, which ends in September, and that defense contractors will be overwhelmed by the short deadline.
“There is a point in the near future where they will not be able to finish the race,” he said.
The defense budget remains tied to a political fight on Capitol Hill over immigration reform, which caused a brief government shutdown last month. Congress must strike a deal and pass new legislation to raise Budget Control Act caps to fund the $700 billion authorization bill and Mattis’ upcoming $716 billion budget request.
Lawmakers have another Feb. 8 deadline to reach that deal and pass a spending bill before the current stopgap budget expires.
Chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said Thursday that she remained optimistic, saying “they could pass a budget.”
In reality, Republicans are already laying plans to vote on another continuing resolution as soon as Tuesday that would keep defense funding on autopilot through March 22. The extension, the fifth for the year, would give more time for the GOP and Democrats to hammer out a spending and immigration deal.
“If they do a CR until March 22, that’s halfway through the fiscal year on a continuing resolution, and it’s especially disruptive because the budget request for fiscal year '18 ... is significantly higher than the CR level,” said Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Harrison said “we’re definitely into that stage” where the stopgap measures become a painful problem for the Pentagon.
“They will eventually get [the defense budget] worked out. At this point, the problem is that they may get it worked out and get a deal but it may be too late in the year for the deal to really have an effect, to be useful,” he said.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, the House Armed Services chairman, spoke about the prospects of a defense budget on Thursday after a meeting with Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Republican retreat in West Virginia.
“My sense is they are very close to a budget agreement, and I’ll just say the secretaries were very clear and direct about the imperative of getting a budget agreement in place so that we can end this series of CRs and threats of a shutdown,” Thornberry said.