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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Defense Increase ‘Historic’?

President Donald Trump told the nation’s governors that his first budget would include “a historic increase in defense spending.” But defense experts say that’s not the case.

For fiscal year 2018, Trump has proposed a 9.4 percent increase in the base defense budget, which does not including war funding. But Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan enacted double-digit increases in base defense spending in five years in the 1980s — including a whopping 25 percent increase in fiscal 1981.

On Feb. 27, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said Trump’s first proposed budget would contain $603 billion in defense discretionary spending for fiscal year 2018, which begins Oct. 1. That is $52 billion, or 9.4 percent, higher than the $551 billion in fiscal year 2017. (The $551 billion spending level for FY2017 was set by Congress and the Obama administration as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, as the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office explains in a January report.)

On the same day, Trump touted his proposed defense spending as “historic” in a speech to the nation’s governors, who are gathered in Washington, D.C., for the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association.

Trump, Feb. 27: This budget will be a public safety and national security budget, very much based on those two with plenty of other things but very strong. And it will include a historic increase in defense spending to rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America at a time we most need it.

In his Feb. 28 speech to a joint session of Congress, Trump similarly said that he would propose a budget with “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.”

What Trump has proposed so far is a large increase, but is it “a historic increase”?

We asked Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to place the 9.4 percent increase in historical context. He said we can use the White House Office of Management and Budget’s historical tables — specifically the “total national defense” line item in “Table 5.6 — Budget Authority for Discretionary Programs: 1976–2021” — to compare Trump’s 9.4 percent increase with past defense budgets, but only through fiscal year 2000. That’s because Trump’s 9.4 percent increase is just in base defense funding; he has yet to announce his war funding budget. The defense discretionary figures in OMB’s table from FY2001 to FY2017 include base defense funding and a special category of war funding known as overseas contingency operations, or OCO, for the Middle East wars.

We calculated the percentage change in defense discretionary spending authority for each of the 21 years from fiscal 1980 to fiscal 2000, and found that there were double-digit increases in five of those years. Also, President George H.W. Bush increased national defense spending in fiscal 1991 by 9.3 percent, about the same as Trump’s proposal.

“There were multiple years of increases larger than this during the early 1980s,” Harrison told us in an email. “So I don’t think this budget proposal can be accurately described as an historic increase. It’s a large increase, but not that large.”

Here are the double-digit increases in defense discretionary spending authority:

Defense Discretionary Spending

Year Increase (in billions) Percent change
1981 $35.9 24.9%
1982 $36.7 20.4%
1980 $17.6 13.9%
1983 $27.8 12.8%
1985 $29.3 11%
Source: White House Office of Management and Budget


We should add that the defense discretionary budget figures in OMB’s table are in “current dollars,” which are not adjusted for inflation. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the increases in the 1980s were larger than Trump’s proposed $52 billion increase in four of the five years.

  • The $35.9 billion increase in 1981 would be $96 billion in today’s dollars.
  • The $36.7 billion increase in 1982 would be $92.4 billion.
  • The $27.8 billion increase in 1983 would be $67.8 billion.
  • The $29.3 billion increase in 1985 would be $66 billion.

Edward Lorenzen, a senior adviser for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said President George W. Bush’s base defense budget increases also were larger in 2002 (12 percent), 2003 (11 percent) and 2008 (10 percent). (The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget calculated those percentages by subtracting war funding from the discretionary defense figures to arrive at base defense budget figures for the years after fiscal 2001.)

“There have been many increases larger in nominal and percentage terms” than Trump’s proposed increase, Lorenzen said.

Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, said the administration will not release its full budget and budget details until May. Until then, we will not know how much Trump will request in war funding.

Mackensie Eaglen, a defense expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote that total defense spending may not rise as much as Trump now claims if the base defense budget includes items previously covered in the overseas contingency operations.

“What remains unclear is the total defense budget request by Trump’s team, which will include funding for overseas contingency operations (OCO),” Eaglen wrote. “With Mick Mulvaney running the White House budget office, it is likely that OCO will be scaled back, and some migration will begin of nonemergency priorities in this account shifting over to the base budget.”

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized Trump’s proposal because it is “just 3 percent more than President Obama’s budget,” referring to the amount Obama proposed in his FY2017 budget for base defense spending in fiscal 2018. McCain has called for a $640 billion base defense budget for FY2018 — which would be a 16 percent increase.