May 29, 2019

Strategy to Ask

Analysis of the 2020 Defense Budget Request

Executive Summary

The defense establishment is enjoying a period of bipartisan agreement on the need to prioritize strategic competition with China and Russia. Recent strategies from both the Obama and Trump administrations have articulated this direction. In light of this fact, the critical question this report asks is: Has the Trump administration put resources behind its strategy? The answer is: Yes and no. The 2020 budget request does contain some new and exciting investments that bring the size and shape of the joint force into better alignment with the National Defense Strategy (NDS). For example:

  • The Army has chosen to slow its end-strength growth, while setting a goal of achieving a 50-50 split between investment in legacy and next-generation systems, compared with a ratio of 80-to-20 today.
  • The Navy has shifted substantial resources to accelerate development of new unmanned systems.
  • The Air Force continues to invest in advanced aircraft and munitions, though with some notable reductions from the fiscal 2019 spending plan.

However, an examination of the budget through the framework of two critical balancing acts begins to reveal where the 2020 budget request comes up short relative to the strategy’s ambition. First, every defense budget must consider the balance among the joint force’s size, its readiness, and its possession of and ability to wield advanced military technology. Second, defense officials must also decide on the relative prioritization of today’s military operations against the need to prepare for the future by investing in next-generation military systems. In both respects, this defense budget request perpetuates bias in favor of size and the near term. A budget request more in line with the strategy would have:

  • Abandoned quantitative goals such as 355 ships for the Navy and 386 squadrons for the Air Force.
  • Invested far more in the next generation of critical military technologies, including advanced munitions, artificial intelligence, and autonomous systems.

But the real failing of the 2020 budget proposed by President Donald Trump’s administration is its pack-aging. In an attempt to avoid negotiating with Democrats over domestic spending, the administration has submitted a budget that, while technically complying with current spending caps introduced in the Budget Control Act, actually increases defense spending by shifting $98 billion from the regular defense budget into accounts not subject to these spending limits. This blatant budgetary malpractice, in combination with the poison pill of Southwest border wall funding, rendered the president’s 2020 defense budget request dead on arrival in Congress. As a result, the administration has abdicated to Congress critical decisions about the size and shape of the future joint force.


The strategic direction of the Department of Defense (DoD) is at present clearly defined and widely agreed upon. At its simplest, the strategy directs the department to focus its energies on strategic competition with China and Russia, while finding more economical ways to protect the United States from terrorist threats. The Obama administration began moving in this direction under the auspices of the Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and the Third Offset. The Trump administration, under then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, clarified, refined, and expanded upon this vision, resulting in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). A congressionally mandated, bipartisan commission on the strategy has since validated the NDS’ prioritization of the threats posed by China and Russia. Put simply, the defense establishment is, more or less, all rowing in the same direction. (Whether the defense establishment is rowing in the same direction as President Donald Trump, or the American people, is another question, and outside the scope of this report.)

Unfortunately, recent budgets have not featured the same clarity or enjoyed the same consensus support. The administration’s 2019 defense budget request was somewhat disappointing. In that cycle, the Trump administration had several factors working in its favor: a large influx of money for defense, a new strategy, and key political personnel in place for the entirety of the budget build. Nevertheless, the administration largely failed to capitalize on these advantages. Officials claimed that the strategy was too late in arriving to make major adjustments to the budget. Ultimately, the Trump administration missed this critical opportunity to bring resources into alignment with a strategy that enjoys broad bipartisan support.

The defense establishment is, more or less, all rowing in the same direction.

Aware that the 2019 budget request did not fully support the NDS, and anticipating disappointment even before that budget’s release, Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan promised a “masterpiece” for 2020. Thus the critical question this report asks is: Has he made good on that promise? In other words, does the “ask” (the defense budget request) fully implement the strategy? In short, the answer is that the budget request is largely supportive of the strategy but contains some critical points of divergence, explored fully below.

Read the full report here.

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  1. U.S. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of The United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (2018), 4,
  2. U.S. Department of Defense, “Reagan Defense Forum: The Third Offset Strategy As Delivered by Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work,” interview by Thom Shanker (Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA, November 7, 2015),
  3. Elbridge A. Colby, Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security, testimony to the Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senate, January 29, 2019, 2,
  4. Eric Edelman, Gary Roughead, et al., “Providing for the Common Defense: The Assessment and Recommendations of the National Defense Strategy Commission” (United States Institute of Peace, November 2018), v,
  5. Susanna V. Blume and Lauren Fish, “The Bottom Line: Analysis of the 2019 Defense Budget Request” (Center for a New American Security, June 2018), 1,
  6. U.S. Department of Defense, “Off-Camera, On-The-Record Media Availability with Deputy Secretary Shanahan,” interview with Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan, U.S. Department of Defense, December 21, 2017,
  7. Susanna V. Blume and Christopher Dougherty, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Defense Budget Masterpiece,”, March 8, 2019,
  8. “Ask” is a noun in the Pentagon.


  • Susanna V. Blume

    Former Senior Fellow and Director, Defense Program

    Susanna Blume is a former Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. Her research areas included the Defense program and budg...

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