President-elect Joe Biden’s first federal budget proposal won’t be out until early spring, but those initial decisions on military spending could set the tone for the Defense Department’s focus for years to come.
Typically the White House unveils its annual budget proposal in early February, outlining plans for the armed forces’ end strength levels, service equipment procurement schedules and program funding totals for the entire military.
However, in presidential transition years, that work is often delayed until late March or April to give the new administration time to compile their financial goals and priorities.
That switch from President Donald Trump’s vision for the federal budget to Biden could be particularly stark, given their competing views for Pentagon funding.
On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to “maintain our [military] superiority,” but added that “we must do so affordably.” He said his administration will emphasize diplomacy and economic aid over “aging legacy capabilities,” but also pledged large investments in military unmanned vehicles and artificial intelligence systems.
One area of the military budget that could see the biggest change is personnel numbers.
During Trump’s four years in office, the military’s end strength grew by nearly 80,000 service members. That number is scheduled to rise about 8,000 more next year.
Trump repeatedly attacked Biden and former President Barack Obama for cutting personnel totals back too far, leaving remaining troops with more missions and less recovery time.
However, both Biden and Trump promised to decrease U.S. military missions overseas. Whether that leads to a corresponding drop in active-duty troop levels under Biden remains a key question of his first budget proposal.
Trump also pushed for — and got — repeated increases in the total military budget during his time in office. The fiscal 2020 defense budget topped $738 billion, up about 10 percent from the end of the Obama administration.
But those increases came at a cost for other federal agencies, such as the State Department. Biden has promised to better balance funding across the entire government, which could mean smaller hikes or cuts for defense spending.
Biden’s inauguration is scheduled to take place on Jan. 20.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.