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Trump’s Pentagon Budget Boost: Shades of Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s military buildup had little justification, though the military was rebuilding after the Vietnam disaster. Today, there is almost no case at all for a defense budget increase as big as the $54 billion that the Trump administration wants.

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The last time a president went for a peacetime defense budget increase of the magnitude the Donald is seeking was 1981. Showing no originality, the current office-holder has even borrowed Ronald Reagan’s bumper sticker: “Peace Through Strength”! Holy cow, he even plans to bury this increase in a budget that promises fiscal control, cuts revenues, and slashes domestic spending.

Talk about Groundhog Day. David Stockman must be rolling over in his bed (being still alive), recognizing the track marks on newly minted Mick Mulvaney as similar to the ones Cap Weinberger left on his back in 1981. It’s like a bad movie, something Reagan knew well; or, better yet, a bad TV show, which was the leadership preparation for the current chief executive.

Reagan’s military buildup had little justification, though the military was rebuilding after the Vietnam disaster. Today, there is almost no case at all for a defense budget increase as big as the $54 billion that the Trump administration wants.

Oh, yes, that pesky readiness crisis. All those aircraft parts being cross-decked to another carrier. All those Army brigade combat teams that are not up to snuff. I’ve been around long enough to recognize snake oil when I see it. Somehow there is always a readiness crisis when the service chiefs want more money. And they always want more money, so readiness becomes a convenient shibboleth to meet that demand.

Without getting too granular, readiness is in the eye of the beholder. If readiness is defined as forces ready to do battle in central Europe, which it still largely is, then we don’t have that and, arguably, don’t need it, either. But if readiness is defined as forces that can be used where they are being used—in regional theaters, in small numbers, as part of counter-terror/counter-Islamic State operations—then we have the most ready force we’ve ever seen. The failures of Iraq and Afghanistan taught them lessons being applied in the theater now.

In truth, the services have wanted more for years, and they have been getting it—in fact, more than they need. Since the war(s) began, the last two administrations parked more than $1 trillion in a slush fund—the so-called overseas contingency operations account (OCO)—all above the basic needs of the services.

Our military is not unready. It is not “hollow,” it is not at the edge of any cliff below which disaster looms. At more than $600 billion, with 1.35 million people in uniform, 10 aircraft carriers, over 1,200 tactical fighters, 68,000 special operations forces in more than 100 countries, the US has the most capable, most global, most challenging military force in the world. It is the only truly global force, and has been for decades. The hyperbole of a “hollow military” is symbolic political rhetoric, but it is not military reality.

Threat is not driving the proposed increase, though the new administration is certainly using the rhetoric of threat. For all his bluster, Putin’s military is a shadow of its former Soviet self and the Chinese are a war planner’s fantasy way off in the future. As for the terrorists: gimme a break. You think we can’t do what we need to with 68,000 special operators and a little elbow grease? Seriously, that’s a cost-effective force.

Readiness is not the problem. Nor is threat. But then how about the costs of all those weapons? The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says that the Defense Department has projected into the future the purchase of ships, missiles, aircraft, vehicles, and technology that cannot be afforded under current budget plans. So maybe that’s why we need to throw money at the problem.

The CBO has been saying this for about 30 years. The services’ appetite for weapons is always, always, more than projected budgets. It’s a great way of saying “I need more money.” And somehow, they keep buying things, using the things, having enough to do their jobs, and, in the end, producing the dominant, global force described above. Frankly, the services will never plan out an affordable plan for buying weapon because they have no incentive to do so. To be honest about a weapon’s cost jeopardizes the program. If the service can get a weapons program underway, the politics alone will save it, regardless of the cost. The United States already spends more on defense than necessary, there being little incentive to make hard choices and set priorities. Adding another $54 billion takes away the last shred of budget discipline at the Pentagon.

Bottom line: the military service chiefs have always wanted more. They overrode David Stockman; they wore down Bill Clinton; they made a run at it in 2008 when I worked the OMB transition for Barack Obama. The only time they failed was taking on the toughest secretary on the block—Dick Cheney, who lowered the defense budget by 25% (in constant dollars), reduced the size of the military by 30%, and, with Colin Powell, left in place the force that, ten years later, rolled over Saddam Hussein like he was a speed bump.

Sadly, the administration’s budget proposal even sacrifices the rest of the tools in the toolkit of statecraft. Farewell, State Department and diplomacy; farewell foreign assistance and development. Been nice knowing you. And what happened to Secretary Rex Tillerson’s clout and access to the Oval Office? He must have been on a plane to nowhere important when the decisions were made. State was already a shadow of its former self; now it is like the Cheshire Cat, with only the grinning pinstripes visible.

History repeats itself, sometimes, and this time as dangerous farce. Congress will trip over itself to increase the defense budget. The paltry few Democrats in the way will feel the breeze as the defense train whips by. They may retrieve some crumbs from the meal as they defend the last outpost of domestic discretionary spending. We’re in for more hardware, more forces, and more spending waste at the five-sided building, with less justification than we have seen in the last 70 years.

Gordon Adams is professor emeritus at American University, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, and was, from 1993-97, the senior White House official for national security budgets. Photo of F-16s courtesy of US Air Force via Flickr.

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