- The Washington Times - Monday, November 19, 2018

U.S. military services on Monday began a process few expected under President Trump: finding programs they’re willing to sacrifice in the face of looming multibillion-dollar budget cuts demanded by the White House.

Each of the military’s five branches delivered their first preliminary spending plans for fiscal year 2020 to Defense Department officials on Monday. While the documents are fluid, they represent the Pentagon’s first stab at finding ways to pare its budget from this year’s original projection of $733 billion to $700 billion, a 2.3 percent drop from FY2019 levels that insiders say was completely unexpected by the military brass until just weeks ago.

The move also seems to fly in the face of Mr. Trump’s vow to undo the damage he says was done to the military under President Obama by boosting national defense spending. Mr. Trump delivered on that promise with a major increase for the Pentagon in the current fiscal year, but now is seeking cuts in defense spending in 2020 and beyond because of looming budget deficits, cuts that would be 5 percent below the administration’s initial projection.

Specialists say the budget reductions — which come at a time when tensions between Mr. Trump and military leaders are already high given the commander in chief’s persistent criticism of high-ranking retired officers such as Navy Adm. William H. McRaven — could lead to a “showdown” between the White House and Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, with the Pentagon chief potentially even resigning over the issue.

The sticking point is likely to be Mr. Mattis’s comprehensive National Defense Strategy, a vision for the U.S. military unveiled earlier this year which assumed a spending level for the Defense Department that at the very least keeps pace with inflation. If the budget falls, some analysts say, Mr. Mattis could tell the president and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney that he’s unable to put that plan in place.

“There’s going to be a showdown between Mattis and Mulvaney, probably the first week in December,” said Mark Cancian, senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mr. Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel, formerly worked on defense spending strategy at OMB.

“Mattis will come in with his two budgets — the higher one they had been working on and the lower one they’re now building,” Mr. Cancian continued. “And he’s going to say, ‘Mr. President, I cannot execute the strategy we published last year and do the things you’ve asked me to do with the lower budget amount.’ And then Trump can do what he wants. My guess is he will backtrack, at least some.”

“If he doesn’t … I don’t think there’s any way Mattis can stay on as secretary of defense,” he concluded.

Risks for Trump

For Mr. Trump, reining in the Pentagon’s budget carries two risks, analysts say. The first is that he could be seen as breaking his own pledge to ramp up military spending — which many specialists argue was already too low, even if the current level is maintained.

“As if it weren’t enough that $733 billion was too little to provide for the common defense of America and meet the Pentagon’s own stated objectives and requirements, the administration now would like defense to absorb a 5 percent spending cut in 2020,” Mackenzie Eaglen, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies defense budgets and military readiness, wrote in a piece for the online news site Breaking Defense on Monday. “Why is the Trump administration doing this? Because scoring political points about the deficit and debt while doing nothing to solve that problem is easy.”

Given the need to curb the growing federal deficit across the board, “no matter how much money the Pentagon gets, the president’s budget for next year is still flat or declining,” Ms. Eaglen added. “Contrary to the president’s rhetoric, there is no forthcoming Trump buildup, and the new strategy emphasizing China and Russia is becoming ever more elusive and out of touch with fiscal reality.”

Defense budget analysts say the unexpectedly lower spending levels could be felt in a number of areas, from a freeze in the size of the regular Army and constrained pay raises to slower aircraft and ship construction and deferred advanced weapons systems designed for a war with a “peer competitor” such as Russia or China.

More broadly, Mr. Trump risks deepening a rift with the military that’s already at the risk of boiling over following his continued criticism of well-respected Pentagon officials and retired senior officers. The president on Sunday, for example, blasted Adm. McRaven, saying that the architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — “a Hillary Clinton supporter,” Mr. Trump said — should have gotten the job done earlier.

“Wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that, wouldn’t it have been nice?” Mr. Trump told “Fox News Sunday.”

The reaction to that comment was swift and harsh, with retired military officers and former Pentagon leaders blasting Mr. Trump.

“This president owes Adm. McRaven and all of the SEALs involved in that operation an apology for what he’s saying,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told MSNBC on Monday.

Retired Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal told CNN the president’s words erode the military’s confidence in the commander in chief.

“We have certain things we want and demand of leaders,” he said. “And to a degree, there has to be a confidence in the leader’s basic core values. We have to be able to believe in enough of what that leader represents to feel comfortable following them, sometimes to our deaths.”

The OMB-mandated cuts are likely to face a highly skeptical reception on Capitol Hill. But if they do go through as planned, specialists say Mr. Trump will be seen as not only badmouthing military leaders but actively undermining them financially.

“If he actually implements the cuts, then there will be a lot of tension with the military. It’s because they’ll feel whipsawed,” Mr. Cancian said.

Publicly, Pentagon officials have said they’ll work with whatever budget number the White House gives them. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan told reporters last week the final budget will be a “masterpiece,” though he cautioned that the White House needs to understand a lower spending level will require sacrifices.

“What I want the president to understand when we bring [the spending plan] forward is, what are those tradeoffs?” he said, saying the Pentagon may be facing “reduced capacity … lower quantities of procurement, a changed modernization.”

“By Monday we’ll have a better feel for which trades the services want to make, whether it’s end-strength, or capability or capacity,” he added.

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