Why Trump's Military Budget Boost Doesn't Add Up

The Pentagon is spending more than it did in Vietnam. But here's another $54 billion.

President Donald Trump is proposing to increase defense spending by $54 billion while slashing the budgets the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Agency for International Development. Trump has called his plan, which he will officially unveil tonight at a speech before Congress, "a landmark event, a message to the world, in these dangerous times, of American strength, security and resolve."

Trump campaigned on a promise to increase the Pentagon's budget and reverse the Obama administration's alleged "hollowing out" of the military. Yet a look at the numbers shows that while military spending has been decreasing due to bipartisan budget caps and the drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Defense Department is still getting more money than it has at any time since the end of World War II. Its 2016 budget was more than $600 billion. In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, it was $569 billion (in current dollars).

And while Trump says increased military spending will reassert America's strength, the United States already is the world's 800-pound gorilla. In 2015, it was responsible for more than one third of all military spending on the planet. China and Russia, the United States' main military competitors, don't even come close. 

Trump's budget plans also feature drastic cuts to international and environmental spending. He's reportedly pushing for a 24 percent cut to the EPA budget and a 37 percent cut to the State Department and USAID budget. While such reductions would have profound effects on these agencies, they are a drop in the bucket compared with the Pentagon budget. In 2016, the Department of State and USAID received an estimated $50.6 billion, or 1.3 percent of all federal spending. The EPA received $8.3 billion, or 0.2 percent of all federal spending. Meanwhile, the Pentagon got 15 percent.

While $54 billion would represent a more than 10 percent increase in the base military budget (which doesn't include the extra money it receives for overseas operations), it's massive compared to what the federal government spends on many social, science, environmental, and cultural programs—some of which could be on the chopping block. The Trump administration has reportedly been eyeing the National Endowment of the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for elimination and privatization, respectively. The combined budgets of those two agencies was $593 million in 2016—or 0.98 percent of all defense spending.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon's books are such a mess that it has never been audited, and the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly (though politely) criticized it for its "long-standing financial management deficiencies." Even as Trump talks about shaking things up in Washington, DC, his budget plans reveal that he won't challenge a costly budgetary tradition: giving the Pentagon a pass.

Sources: Office of Management and Budget, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, United States Agency for International Development, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Endowment for the Arts