ROME – A new budget agreement in Congress, coupled with the fiscal year 2019 budget, has given the Pentagon the ramp it needs to begin reshaping the U.S. military, defense secretary Jim Mattis believes.

“I am very confident that what the Congress has now done, and the president is going to allocate to us in the budget, is what we need to bring us back to a position of primacy,” Mattis said while traveling to Europe on Sunday. Defense News is traveling with the secretary.

When he took office, President Donald Trump pledged to “rebuild” America’s military, but his FY18 budget request was largely viewed by analysts as falling well short of that goal. Exacerbating that problem has been Congress’ inability to reach a budget deal through the first five months of the fiscal year.

That latter problem appears to have solved itself, with Trump signing off on a congressional deal that gives defense $700 billion in FY18 and $716 billion for FY19. And with the FY19 budget set for release Monday, Mattis is prepared to spend that money – with an eye on building up capability, rather than investing in pure numbers.

“We’re going to have to buy some new F-18s, for example, in order to keep the F-18s squadrons where they can be maintained,” Mattis said. “We will be standing up some new elements, cyber is one example, and we will be recruiting more mechanics in the Air Force and recruiting more soldiers and sailors” to fill out gaps.

“So, it’s not a lot bigger, organizationally. It’s built more to address the changing forms of warfare and to bring the current capabilities up.”

Susanna Blume, a defense analyst with the Center for a New American Security, said she believes a focus on capability over capacity makes sense, even if it goes against Trump’s promise of a large military buildup.

“Even this considerable increase in resources, and it is considerable, is not going to allow the department to approach the campaign promise for structure numbers that then-candidate Trump put out there,” Blume said on Feb. 9.

“In an environment where we’re trying to shift focus to strategic competition with China and Russia, it makes very little sense, to me at least, to focus on number of soldiers and number of ships and number of aircraft without carefully thinking through the capabilities,” she added.

The development of the FY19 budget was complicated by an ongoing series of reviews, including the National Security Strategy released in December, the National Defense Strategy released in January and the Nuclear Posture Review released in February. The Ballistic Missile Defense Review is still ongoing and could be released in the next month.

Because those policy papers were being developed simultaneous with the budget, deputy secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan has said that it won’t be until FY20 that the true “masterpiece” budget is released. But Mattis noted that the National Security Council team that drafted the National Security Strategy kept DoD firmly in the loop, allowing the department to incorporate at least some of those decisions into its budget plan.

“We were in on the ground floor. We saw different graphs, we went in with our inputs and all, at the same time we were putting together our National Defense Strategy,” the secretary explained. “Our budgeteers were getting constant guidance as the National Security Strategy [and] National Defense Strategy were put together. So this all feeds into the longer term view that’s already couched inside the defense strategy.”

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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