It is best not to assign too much meaning to US government budget requests these days, as Congress has failed to enact a defence appropriations bill since 2015.
Instead, the gridlocked lawmakers wind up compromising on merely extending that year’s spending law, with extra money added for a few favourite programmes, such as Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
At this moment, the fiscal year 2018 budget request unveiled by the new Trump administration on 23 May seems an unlikely candidate to buck the trend.
US elections last November solved one of the biggest reasons for the budgetary gridlock, handing control of the White House and the legislature to the same political party for the first time since 2010.
But despite holding the levers of power to pass and approve new legislation, the Republican party has not yet demonstrated an ability to form an internal consensus.
For US and international defence manufacturers, the implications are clear. Any hopes of a “Trump budget” for defence spending must be deferred at least another year and, perhaps, indefinitely. To be optimistic, the good news is that defence spending is not in decline.
If president Donald Trump’s proposed budget is enacted, overall spending authority for the Pentagon would rise by $18 billion compared with this year’s request. For any other military, that would be a fortune, but with the Pentagon approved to spend $585 billion this year, $18 billion is a pittance.
Trump won election after pledging to swell the army by 55,000 troops to 545,000 and the navy by 85 ships to 355. Each of those promises imply the purchase of hundreds more aircraft to equip the new units. However, the new budget request provides no foreseeable path to accomplish either of those objectives.
By budgetary default, the air force is in a slightly better position. Trump’s only campaign promise regarding the service was a modest goal of increasing the number of planned Lockheed Martin F-35As ready for combat operations at any one time to 1,200, essentially the acquisition of a few more dozen Joint Strike Fighters by 2035.
For sure, the US defence industry has weathered harder times. Planned spending levels are enough to keep existing production lines healthy. But military planners have a more ambitious appetite, with a 20-year vision to develop and field new fleets of sixth-generation fighters, high-speed rotorcraft and hypersonic weapons. But the bill for those advanced technologies has yet to arrive.