May 22, 2019

What Congress Should Do with the 2020 Defense Budget

By Chris Estep

The Department of Defense’s strategic emphasis on competition with China and Russia enjoys widespread bipartisan support from members of the defense establishment. However, the Trump administration’s 2020 defense budget request remains too focused on both the size of the joint force and on reducing near-term risks, rather than funding the capabilities required to sustain the military’s technological advantage. In upcoming defense authorization and appropriations bills, Congress can rectify many of these shortcomings.

In a new briefing, “What Congress Should Do with the 2020 Defense Budget,” CNAS Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Defense Program Susanna V. Blume examines both the encouraging developments and the shortcomings of the administration’s 2020 defense budget proposal. Overall, she concludes that the 2020 budget request does not constitute the “masterpiece” promised by then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan in 2017. Blume highlights several specific deficiencies, including the 2020 defense budget request’s insufficient funding for investments in artificial intelligence (AI) or new advanced munitions. Instead, the proposal features a misguided focus on quantitative measurements of military power, such as the mere number of ships in the Navy or squadrons in the Air Force, rather than qualitative assessments of military capability.

Blume recommends that members of Congress exercise oversight authorities in a variety of ways to address the budget request’s shortcomings, including:

  • Rejecting the administration’s approach to overseas contingency operations (OCO) funding and passing a bipartisan deal to raise defense and non-defense discretionary spending caps for the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years
  • Ending the focus on the numbers of ships, aircraft, or soldiers as measurements of force sufficiency
  • Supporting the administration’s plan to establish a Space Force
  • Increasing investment in critical advanced technologies

Blume argues that the department’s continued focus on numbers of platforms—355 ships in the Navy, 386 squadrons in the Air Force—is misguided. She concludes: “In order to engage in a meaningful discussion about force planning, both the department and Congress must forsake these easy quantitative metrics in favor of a deeper qualitative conversation about U.S. military advantages over key competitors.”

This briefing is part of the Key National Security Issues for Congress series, established to promote bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill by offering a series of practical policy proposals for lawmakers and staff.

Read the full briefing.


  • Chris Estep

    Former Communications Officer

    Chris Estep is a former Communications Officer at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), where he coordinated the Center’s digital engagement and congressional relatio...