The Pentagon wants a lot more money, and Donald Trump is eager to meet the demand. He has promised the largest military spending binge since Ronald Reagan and recently told soldiers they would soon enjoy “beautiful new planes and beautiful new equipment.”
The military doesn’t need more dollars. It needs more sense. Its global commitments are unsustainable. The waste, fraud and abuse in the defense budget is already indefensible.
US military spending—$586.6 billion in fiscal year 2017—is higher in comparable dollars than it was under Reagan at the height of the Cold War. The United States spends more on its military than the five powers with the next-largest military budgets combined. Our Army, Air Force and Navy fleets of aircraft each outnumber the combined air powers of most other countries. Our Coast Guard alone is one of the largest navies in the world.
In the campaign, Trump promised to expand the Army’s active duty troops, boost the number of warships from 275 to 350, add hundreds of fighter aircraft, upgrade the nuclear arsenal and missile defense systems, and of course, “be good to our veterans.” His budget for FY2018 called for a five percent bump in military spending.
According to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Pentagon needs increases between three and seven percent per year though 2023 to update weapons and rebuild the military’s capacity. Expanding the forces would cost even more, and fighting wars, more still.
The already staggering amounts of cash delivered to the military each year isn’t sufficient because the appetites of the American war machine are too grand. The Pentagon’s strategic ambition requires it to be able to wage and win wars against Russia in the Baltics and China in the East China Sea simultaneously. It pursues terrorists from Pakistan to Somalia. Trump has doubled down on troops and commitments in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. (He meanwhile seems intent on tweeting us into conflicts with the Ayatollah in Iran and “Rocket Man” in North Korea.)
In 2016, US Special Forces were dispatched to 138 countries—a preposterous 70 percent of the world, from Mongolia to Mauritania. The Pentagon is also tasked with policing the world’s oceans, air and space to make them safe for international commerce.
This global ambition runs alongside pervasive waste, fraud and corruption. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis acknowledged that nearly 20 percent of the Pentagon’s properties around the world are actually not necessary. Politically savvy cost-plus contracting rules has insured massive overruns, with the Pentagon squandering tens of billions on weapons that are eventually scrapped. Three admirals have been ensnared in the multi-year smarmy “Fat Leonard” scandal, as he serviced Naval officers to gain contracts servicing Navy ships. The Pentagon’s books still cannot be audited.
More money will not fix this. The Pentagon needs massive new thinking about America’s vital interests and its real security needs, and to discard the assumption that we alone can police the world. And it needs a fundamental shakeup about how it does business and how it operates internally.
Trump and the Republican majorities in Congress aren’t about to force either a strategic reassessment or an operational cleansing. They also aren’t likely to give the military the money it actually needs to carry out the global strategy it is assigned. The plutocrat’s raid on the Treasury was their first priority. The push to roll back the Great Society and the New Deal is coming next. So they’ll end up adding a few billion to the military budget, while cutting more deeply in programs for the vulnerable.
This course is failing America—and our military. It entangles us in endless conflict. It exhausts equipment and soldiers. Two-thirds of US Army Maneuver Brigades, we’re told, are unready to fight. The surface Navy is strained by inadequate numbers of ships and ever-higher operational tempos—requiring seaman to work unmanageable hours, and increasing the risk of accidents. Defense analyst Dan Goure reported that “only about half of Navy and Marine Corps front line fighters are currently available for combat,” while the Air Force “is short some 1,000 pilots.” Moreover, emerging real security risks like climate change can’t be adequately addressed.
Trump’s adolescent bluster may trample treaties, offend friends, and create accidental wars. He might destroy the old order, but there’s no chance he will be part of defining a new strategy. With few exceptions, Democrats have been part of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment which still assumes America can police the world. Bernie Sanders’ recent speech at Westminster College challenged the framework of the Global War on Terror, offering the beginnings of a rethinking. Among those aspiring to lead the country, he should not be alone.