February 15, 2018

Overview of the 2019 President’s Budget Request for Defense

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request for the Department of Defense is $686 billion, an increase of $40 billion over the president’s fiscal year 2018 request. As we covered in our “what to expect” piece, about half of this increase is consumed by inflation and cost growth above inflation in some accounts. Even so, the 2019 request provides substantial real growth for the Department of Defense, although it can be surprising how little even these staggering sums can buy, in terms of things like military aircraft, ships, and satellites. Even in these times of increasing budgets, DoD must still make tough decisions about what to prioritize and where to accept risk.


The budget request grows the size of the force, but does so at relatively modest levels, adding an additional 51,500 active duty service members by 2023 and 5,100 service members to the reserve components over the same period, an increase of 3 percent total. The services intend most of this endstrength growth to improve readiness; much of it will go to filling gaps and improving manning levels in existing units, some of which have been understaffed due to previous endstrength cuts, rather than toward creating new force structure. Also in the cause of improving readiness, the services are continuing to increase munitions buys, particularly for guided munitions like the Navy and Air Force’s Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and the Army and Marine Corps’ Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS). The services are also investing more in sustaining their physical infrastructure, especially training, operational, and maintenance facilities, reversing cuts to facilities sustainment accounts made during the preceding era of declining budgets.


Procurement grew more than any other title in the defense budget – up 15 percent relative to the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2018 request – an increase of approximately $20 billion. In addition to the increased munitions procurement mentioned above, this budget invests in additional aircraft (F-35 and P-8A), ships (DDG-51 and T-AO), space systems (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles and Space Based Infrared System), and ground vehicles (Joint Light Tactical Vehicles) above what the department requested last year.

Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation

Research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) received the second largest percentage increase, at 11 percent over the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2018 request. This increase makes sense given the National Defense Strategy’s focus on strategic competition with China and Russia. DoD needs to investment more in these accounts to fund the advanced capability development the United States needs to retain its technological edge against these adversaries, who are also investing heavily in high-end weapons systems. Priority investment areas in this category include hypersonic weapons, autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, directed energy (i.e., lasers), and electronic warfare (i.e., offensive or defensive action in the electromagnetic spectrum). These investments play the long game; the department needs to do the research and development work now that will make it possible to field these capabilities in the future. 

Missile Defense Agency

Some of this growth in both procurement and RDT&E went to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), whose budget increased by 26 percent, from $7.9 billion in the fiscal year 2018 request to $9.9 billion in the fiscal year 2019 request. MDA has requested funds to improve strategic missile defenses, primarily the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which protects the homeland. It has also has plans to invest more in regional missile defenses, which protect allies and partners as well as U.S. facilities overseas, and include the Aegis and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems. This substantial increase in funding provides a good indication of where the forthcoming DoD Missile Defense Review is headed.


The Army grew the most of the three military departments: 10 percent over the fiscal year 2018 request. The 2019 request increases Army endstrength by 11,500 soldiers in the active component and 1,000 soldiers in the Guard and Reserve, with additional growth planned through 2023. The Army’s focus on modernization and acquisition reform is reflected by RDT&E and procurement growth totaling $4.2 billion above the fiscal year 2018 request. These investments include new UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, new Joint Light Tactical Vehicles, modifications and upgrades to M-1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, and increased munitions procurement.

Navy and Marine Corps 

The Navy and Marine Corps budget grew by 8 percent relative to the fiscal year 2018 request. In fiscal year 2019, the Navy will add 7,500 active duty sailors and an additional 100 in the reserve, while the Marine Corps will grow by 1,100 active Marines. The Navy plans to grow from 289 battle force ships in fiscal year 2018 to 299 in the fiscal year 2019 request. It will do so by procuring an additional DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and an additional fleet oiler over last year’s plan. At the same time, the 2019 plan reduces the Littoral Combat Ship buy from two in fiscal year 2018 to one, in preparation for selection of a new frigate. The 2019 request increases aircraft procurement relative to 2018, adding five F-35Cs, 10 F/A-18E/Fs, and three P-8As. The 2019 request sustains investments in subsurface capabilities and nuclear modernization.

Air Force

The Air Force budget grew by about 6 percent over the fiscal year 2018 request. To improve readiness, the 2019 plan adds 4,700 airmen, invests in training and maintenance, and munitions procurement. The request continues to modernize through F-35A and KC-46A tanker procurement and development of the B-21 bomber and T-X advanced trainer. It sustains investments in modernizing nuclear and space systems. Notably, the budget request indicates that the Air Force is reexamining their plan to recapitalize the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), instead developing an alternative way to fulfill the battle management command and control mission.


The Defense-wide accounts, also sometimes called the Fourth Estate, fund the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, Special Operations Command, and the defense agencies and field activities, such as the Missile Defense Agency and the Defense Logistics Agency. The Defense-wide accounts grew the least of all the DoD components, by about 5 percent overall relative to the fiscal year 2018 request, despite the Missile Defense Agency’s 26 percent budget increase. Limited growth in this area bodes well for the department’s efforts to meet Congress’s mandate to reduce all major headquarters activities by 25 percent from fiscal years 2016 to 2020.

While the budget increase is both sizable and meaningful, it is not enough to deliver the kind of build-up then-candidate Trump promised on the campaign trail. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as those campaign promises were unmoored from any kind of strategy. But it is remarkable how little an additional $40 billion dollars will buy in terms of military capability and capacity. Further, additional growth is not in the offing, as indicated by the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) profile, which limits further DoD budget growth over the next five years to inflation only and uses a pretty optimistic assumption about what inflation will be over that period (2 percent per year). Even this substantial increase in the defense budget is not enough for DoD to do it all.

Up next: detailed analysis of the Air Force 2019 budget request. Check CNAS.org/PB19 or sign up to have fresh analysis delivered directly to your inbox.

  1. Includes FY 2018 budget request amendments for missile defense, ship repair, increased presence in Afghanistan, and hurricane recovery. U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) Chief Financial Officer, Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Request, (February 2018), 20, http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2019/FY2019_Budget_Request.pdf; U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) Chief Financial Officer, Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Request, (May 2017), 21, http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2018/fy2018_Budget_Request.pdf; Mulvaney, Mick to Donald J. Trump, November 3, 2017. In Estimate #3 — FY 2018 Budget Amendments, https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/omb/budget/fy2018/DOD_budgetamendment_package_nov2017.pdf; and Department of Defense, Details in support of the FY2018 Budget Amendment Request for Recovery from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, (November 2017), http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45Documents/defbudget/fy2018/November2017HurricaneAmended/FY18_DoD_Budget_Amendment-Hurricane_Recovery_Nov2017.pdf.
  2. Department of Defense, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) Chief Financial Officer, Defense Budget Overview: United States Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Request, (May 2017), http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2018/fy2018_Budget_Request_Overview_Book.pdf.
  3. The White House, Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget, DOD Budget Amendment Package November 2017, (November 2017), https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/omb/budget/fy2018/DOD_budgetamendment_package_nov2017.pdf.
  4. Department of Defense, Details in support of the FY 2018 Budget Amendment Request for Recovery from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, (November 2017), http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2018/November2017HurricaneAmended/FY18_DoD_Budget_Amendment-Hurricane_Recovery_Nov2017.pdf.
  5. Department of Defense, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) Chief Financial Officer, Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Request, (February 2018) http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2019/FY2019_Budget_Request.pdf.
  6. Department of Defense, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) Chief Financial Officer, Defense Budget Overview: United States Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Request, 4-555B0A9 (Feb. 2016), 1-5, http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2017/FY2017_Budget_Request_Overview_Book.pdf.
  7. Department of Defense, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) Chief Financial Officer, Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Request, (February 2019), http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2019/FY2019_Budget_Request.pdf.


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