It’s often reported that President Trump does not have the longest attention span. Apparently, that now applies to his pledge to a “great rebuilding of the Armed Forces” as well. After a goodly increase in defense spending this past year and another increase this coming year, the Pentagon has announced that at the instruction of Mick Mulvaney, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, that the White House wants the Defense Department budget now being prepared for Fiscal Year 2020 to be cut from the planned $733 billion to $700 billion.
Now $700 billion sounds like a lot, and is a lot—until you start putting that number in context.
To start, as I wrote here just a few months ago, while the increase in defense spending was certainly welcome and needed—especially to address the crisis in readiness that was crippling the services—in inflation-adjusted dollars, the two-year increase left defense spending at just about what it had been in 2011. And it was that defense budget, and the forces it could support, that finally moved the Pentagon to admit in its January 2012 Defense Policy Guidance that the American military could no longer handle more than one major conflict at a time. In short, it could be dominant in one theater but not in two, a strategic step-back from what had been a constant in American military planning since World War II.
The Obama national security team was satisfied with this situation because it told itself that there were no threats on the European front, and that the plan was to wind down the U.S. military’s combat role in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Obviously, neither of those things still holds true—except that the American military remains basically the same size and, with a few exceptions, is still fielding the same equipment. Only now it’s even older.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to see how this budget is consonant with the administration’s own national security and defense strategies that call for competing with revisionist powers China and Russia, maintaining the fight against Islamist terrorists, and dealing with the rogue regimes of Iran and North Korea. Needless to say, candidate Trump’s pledge to build a navy of 350 ships, field fighter fleet of 1,200 advanced fighters, and add tens of thousands to the Army and Marine Corps is now out of the question.
Of course, the Trump White House was never really serious about rebuilding the American military or, if they were, they were clueless about what it would require in resources. The president’s first attempt at a budget saw defense spending increase by a scant 3 percent. And while defense discretionary spending has been bumped up by $82 billion since 2017, the president’s own projections for subsequent budgets were to remain largely flat or, with inflation, slightly decline. This was even before the latest mandated reduction in planned spending.
At $700 billion, the Pentagon will be able, over the short term, to address some obvious readiness problems. But the answer to the question of how long it will be able to sustain that fix given operational rates and aging equipment is: not long at all. Moreover, this level of spending won’t allow the Pentagon to adequately address the problem of recapitalizing the military’s conventional and strategic forces.
Since the early 1990s, administration after administration has failed to replace planes, ships, vehicles, and strategic weapons at a pace necessary to keep the military’s forces equipped with effective, modern platforms and systems. First, it was the Cold War “peace dividend” and the “procurement holiday” of the 1990s; then it was the costs of the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that drove spending toward operations and away from updating forces; and finally, it was the bipartisan suicide pact of the Budget Control Act that mandated such severe cuts to government discretionary spending that buying new equipment on the scale necessary was out of the question. And, now, with the current spending levels being put forward by the administration, it will be impossible to carry out what new procurement plans the individual services have just begun to put in place. Add in the costs of creating a new Space Force, putting missile defense programs on a more robust path, and the continuing need to bolster cyber and satellite defenses and one can’t imagine how this strategic circle is to be squared.
Many of the things that members of Congress complain about are tied to things that the president alone does. However, proposing and then authorizing budgets to fund the military is a product of the two political branches. Trump can only succeed in hollowing out the military’s capabilities if Congress agrees.
The country has been lucky that we’ve faced no near-peer military competitor in decades. For their reputation in the history books, both administration officials and members of the House and Senate better hope that this remains the case for years to come because the U.S. military is short of what it needs to confidently win a conflict today and appears headed toward an even riskier state in the decade ahead.