Candidate Donald Trump promised an end to the “defense sequester” and a Reaganesque national security strategy premised on “peace through strength.” Toward that end, he pledged to build up the active-duty Army to 540,000 soldiers, the Navy to 350 ships, the Marine Corps to 36 battalions and the Air Force to 1,200 fighter aircraft. With the Middle East on fire, Europe on edge, Russia and Iran on the march, China on the rise, and the Korean Peninsula, as always, on the verge, these are sound and much-needed policy initiatives that will serve the national interest—and promote international stability (which itself is in the national interest). However, what President Donald Trump has called “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history” is not exactly Reagan Buildup 2.0.
Before discussing what next year’s defense budget is—and what it isn’t—let’s take a moment to survey the devastation wrought by the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, which President Barack Obama and a Republican-controlled Congress spawned in 2011. Along with earlier cuts, sequestration slashed projected defense spending by $1 trillion over a 10-year period stretching from 2012 to 2021. More than halfway through the sequestration ordeal, the results are not for the faint of heart:
• Air Force commanders announced in March that they could run out of money to pay pilots to fly the last six weeks of this fiscal year.
• The Navy fleet numbers just 275 ships; combatant commanders say they need 450 ships.
• Marine aviation squadrons are salvaging aircraft parts from museums to keep planes flying.
• As he tries to deter a resurgent and revisionist Russia, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, concedes, “We’ve only got 30,000. We’ve got to make it look and feel like 300,000.” In a similar vein, the Trump administration’s apparent sleight-of-hand with the Carl Vinson during the recent crisis in Korea—trying to make one carrier do the work of two or three—is an indication that the U.S. doesn’t have the carrier firepower it once had to coerce foes and reassure allies.
• When Obama ordered warplanes from the USS George H.W. Bush to blunt the ISIS blitzkrieg in 2014, then-CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert admitted that “they stopped their sorties” over Afghanistan to do so.
• A new GAO study concludes, “The result of the current state of readiness is that military forces are not strong enough to protect vital U.S. national security interests from worldwide threats.” According to GAO, only two-thirds of the troops the Army needs at the outset of a high-end conflict are at acceptable levels of readiness. Air Force readiness is at “historically low levels, with less than 50 percent of forces at acceptable readiness levels and shortages of over 1,500 pilots and 3,400 aircraft maintainers.” Just 28 percent of scheduled Navy maintenance is being completed on time. Some 80 percent of Marine aviation units are falling short of the minimum number of aircraft ready for training.
While Washington slashed defense spending and the troops strained to carry out their ever-expanding mission with ever-diminishing resources, our adversaries capitalized. Between 2011 and 2015, Beijing increased military spending 55.7 percent. Last year, Beijing increased military spending another 7 percent. Likewise, Moscow increased military spending 108 percent between 2004 and 2013; Moscow’s 2015 military outlays were 26 percent larger than in 2014.
All the while, U.S. defense spending has been in freefall. Defense spending—in a time of war and growing international instability—has fallen 15 percent since 2010. The defense budget has shrunk from 4.6 percent of GDP in 2009 to around 3 percent of GDP today. There would be nothing worrisome about these numbers if peace were breaking out around the world. But with ISIS and al Qaeda waging war and sowing terror, with China building up its arsenal and claiming the territories of its neighbors, with Russia annexing Crimea and projecting military power into the Middle East, with Iran testing missiles and North Korea detonating nukes, we know the very opposite is true.
To his credit, Trump issued an executive order immediately upon entering office directing the Pentagon “to rebuild the U.S. Armed Forces,” determine funding levels “necessary to improve readiness conditions,” and identify “insufficient maintenance, delays in acquiring parts, access to training ranges, combatant command operational demands, funding needed for consumables…manpower shortfalls, depot maintenance capacity, and time needed to plan, coordinate, and execute readiness and training activities.” He then unveiled a $639-billion defense budget for 2018 ($574.5 billion in baseline funding plus $64.6 billion in special war funding).
To be sure, that translates into more resources for the Pentagon. But it’s hardly a historic increase—one budget specialist says it’s only the eighth-biggest increase since 1977—and the hawks in Congress noticed.
“Such a budget does not represent a 10-percent increase as previously described by the White House, but amounts to a mere 3 percent over President Obama’s defense plan, which has left our military underfunded, undersized and unready to meet the threats of today and tomorrow,” Sen. John McCain concludes.
Rep. Mac Thornberry dismisses the administration’s defense budget as “not enough.” Thus, House leaders have proposed defense budgets ranging from $658.1 billion ($584.2 billion in baseline funding plus $73.9 in war funding) to $705 billion ($640 billion in the baseline funding plus $65 billion in war funding). As Defense News reports, House proposals earmark money for 11 new warships; more than a hundred new F-35 stealth fighter-bombers, F/A-18E/Fs fighter-bombers, KC-46 tankers and UCAVs; and needed M-1A1 tank upgrades. In addition, House plans would increase spending for missile defense by some $2 billion; grow the Army by 17,000 troops; and invest in new cyber capabilities and in the overworked Special Operations Command.
Various subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee have proposed: funding for a U.S. Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force; deploying an additional 24 THAAD missile-defense systems; building and deploying a battle force of 355 ships, including 12 aircraft carriers; funding for more training and military construction; and extra resources to increase endstrength “across the Army, Navy, Air Force, Army Guard and Reserve, Naval and Air Reserve and Air Guard.”
On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Armed Services Committee is calling for $700 billion in defense spending in 2018 ($640 billion in baseline defense spending plus $60 billion for war funding). As The Washington Examiner reports, the Senate blueprint would add 13 warships (five more than the president’s proposal), 94 F-35s (24 more than Trump’s budget), 24 F/A-18s (10 more than Trump’s budget), and 15,000 more Army soldiers and 1,000 more Marines than Trump wants.
In fact, McCain calls for a baseline defense budget of $640.3 billion in 2018, $662.3 billion in 2019, $686.5 billion in 2020, $720.9 billion in 2021 and $740.5 billion in 2022. That sounds like a lot of money. After all, $640.3 billion equals 16 percent of the $4-trillion federal budget and 3.5 percent of America’s $18-trillion GDP. But to put those raw numbers into perspective, consider these comparisons:
In 1943, the U.S. devoted 84.9 percent of federal spending and 36 percent of GDP to defense. In 1950, the U.S. devoted 32.2 percent of federal outlays and 5 percent of GDP to defense. In 1953, the U.S. devoted 69 percent of federal outlays and 13 percent of GDP to defense. In 1960, the U.S. invested 52.2 percent of federal outlays and 8.9 percent of GDP in defense.
In 1968, the U.S. invested 46 percent of federal spending and 9 percent of GDP in defense. In 1984, the U.S. spent 26.7 percent of federal outlays and 5.8 percent of GDP on defense. And in 1991, the U.S. spent 23.9 percent of federal outlays and 4.9 percent of GDP on defense. These years are chosen purposely. In 1991, the U.S. was fighting a war in Iraq and began an open-ended security commitment in the Gulf. (American troops are fighting yet again in Iraq today while continuing to protect Gulf allies.)
By 1984, the U.S. was mounting a vigorous, albeit belated, response to decades of aggression and expansion by Moscow. (Putin is acting aggressively in Eastern Europe and has expanded Russian territory—by force—in Ukraine and Georgia.)
In 1968 and 1953, the U.S. was fighting pitched battles amidst a wider global war known as the Cold War (as it is today in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia amidst the wider war on terror).
In 1950, the U.S. was coming to grips with containing a rising power. (Yesterday, it was Moscow; today, it’s Beijing.)
In 1943, the U.S. was waging a global war against a determined and fanatical foe bent on upending the global order. (Back then, it was fascists; todays, it’s jihadists.)
The good news is that each of the budget proposals discussed here—from the Oval Office to Capitol Hill—would commit resources to our over worked and underequipped military, make needed investments in defense, and put an end to sequestration.