Since coming into office a little more than a year ago, the Trump administration—with help from the Republican-controlled Congress—has added more than $200 billion to the projected levels of defense spending for fiscal years 2017 through 2019. Shortly after taking office, President Donald Trump added $15 billion to former President Barack Obama’s FY 2017 budget, and he proposed a FY 2018 budget of $639 billion. This represented an increase of $56 billion, or 10 percent, over the proposed FY 2017 budget.
As part of the recent deal to keep the government open, Congress agreed to increase the FY 2018 defense budget to $700 billion—an increase of $108 billion, or 18 percent, above the proposed 2017 budget—and the FY 2019 budget to $716 billion. This means that since Trump took office, the defense budget will have grown by $133 billion, or 23 percent.
It will also bring the FY 2019 defense budget, in real terms, to a level not seen since FY 2010, when the United States still had more than 200,000 troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and was spending $163 billion on the wars. These massive increases are for the most part unnecessary and counterproductive. Moreover, the Trump administration’s policy of significantly increasing defense spending while enacting massive tax cuts and reductions to other federal programs that contribute to national security will actually undermine this country’s security in the end.
Many military experts reject increases in spending
Supporters of these unprecedented increases argue that they are necessary because the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) reduced projected levels of defense spending by $406 billion over the past five years. According to the military chiefs, this undermined the readiness of the nation’s armed forces to deal with their current challenges and prevented the United States from dealing adequately with the increasing military capabilities of Russian and Chinese strategic competitors. On the campaign trail and since taking office, President Trump has talked often about the need to rebuild the nation’s military and claims that he has actually given it more money than it needs.
However, these claims are rejected by many members of the military or by other outside military experts. In a late November 2017 press briefing, the top enlisted leaders of the armed forces—the people on the front lines who suffer the most casualties in war—made it clear that Washington’s talk of a readiness problem was overblown.
This sentiment is shared by Gen. David Petraeus, who under former Presidents George W. Bush and Obama not only commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan but also headed the U.S. Central Command and the CIA. In articles that he co-wrote with Brookings Institution national security expert Michael E. O’Hanlon for The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs, the general pointed out that even with the slowdown in the growth of the defense budget since passage of the BCA, the Pentagon does not have a readiness problem. Indeed, Petraeus and O’Hanlon argued that the U.S. military is “awesome” and therefore does not need a massive increase in defense spending, particularly since the government already spends more than the next eight countries in the world combined and spends significantly more than its strategic competitors—including three times more than China and 10 times more than Russia.
The exaggerated claims of the poor state of the U.S. military were demonstrated by a chart in the Nuclear Posture Review, which Defense Secretary Jim Mattis referenced during his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on February 6, 2018. According to Secretary Mattis, the chart demonstrates that during the Obama administration, America’s nuclear adversaries developed 34 new nuclear systems while it developed only one: the F-35. The secretary ignores the fact that the Obama administration began development of a new bomber, ballistic missile submarine, cruise missile, and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Moreover, many of the new systems being developed by Russia and China are modifications of existing systems.
While it is true that the BCA has affected defense capability somewhat, its effect has been mitigated by two factors. First, Congress granted the Department of Defense more than $200 billion in relief between 2013 and 2017 from the spending caps; and the FY 2018 base defense budget exceeds the caps by another $100 billion. Second, the Pentagon has used the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), or warfighting, account to get around the caps. According to the Department of Defense comptroller, about half of the OCO account has funded Pentagon programs that have nothing to do with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, the European Deterrence Initiative has been funded in the OCO account since FY 2017, when the Pentagon received $3.4 billion for it. The Pentagon admits that even with the large increase in the FY 2019 base budget, $17 billion of this year’s OCO account contains items normally funded in the base budget. President Trump’s own Office of Management and Budget director, Mick Mulvaney, has labeled the OCO account a “slush fund.”
As a chart from the Congressional Budget Office makes clear, the base defense budget, measured in constant dollars, under President Obama was actually higher than those of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump’s defense spending will increase the deficit
More importantly, the current administration’s reckless fiscal policies have increased the deficit, which is currently at $20 trillion and was on path to increase by another $10 trillion over the next decade, even before the spending agreement and new tax law. For FY 2019 alone, the deficit is projected to be about $300 billion, or 40 percent more than the defense budget.
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George W. Bush and Obama, rightly called the debt the most significant threat to our national security and supported further slow, thoughtful cuts to defense spending to help deal with the deficit, even before the Trump buildup. This sentiment is shared by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as the only military person to hold the nation’s highest office, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Even influential conservative organizations such as The Heritage Foundation, the Club for Growth, and certain Koch-funded groups criticized the spending binge. Furthermore, Mulvaney himself acknowledged that were he still in Congress, he would probably vote against the current Trump budget.
Obviously, such dramatic increases in defense spending will enable the Pentagon to grow the forces and to buy and develop more weapons. The FY 2019 budget makes it possible for the armed services to increase the size of the active duty force by about 2 percent, make a slight increase in training hours, give the troops a 2.6 percent pay raise, and buy more weapons. Under the new shipbuilding plan, for example, the U.S. Navy will reach President Obama’s goal of 308 ships by 2020—a year ahead of schedule. Similarly, the budget increases the number of F-35s that the Air Force will buy from 70 to 77, which will permit the Air Force to add three new squadrons over the next five years but is actually three fewer than the projection from the last Obama plan.
Furthermore, the only new weapons that the budget proposes are two tactical nuclear weapons, which will very likely increase the probability of a nuclear war.
The budget slashes programs that are crucial to national security
The budget does increase the Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) account of the Pentagon by $17.8 billion, or 24 percent. If spent correctly, this should enable the United States to continue to maintain its competitive edge against strategic competitors. However, even with the increase in the defense share of federal R&D, the overall federal R&D budget declines because the nondefense portion is slashed by 19.2 percent.
Similarly, while the FY 2019 budget increases total cyberfunding for the Pentagon by 4.2 percent to $8.5 billion, it cuts the R&D budget of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which creates cybersecurity standards for the government and private sector, by 18 percent.
Reducing R&D and cyberfunding for nondefense agencies in order to allow the government to pay for increases in the defense budget will not enhance America’s overall security.
Meanwhile, the budget asks for $9.2 billion for the Missile Defense Agency—an increase that is about $1.9 billion more than what was previously planned—even though these programs are so plagued with problems that there are serious doubts as to their effectiveness. In fact, a Pentagon report from last year claimed that the missile defense program demonstrates a limited capability to defend the U.S. homeland from small numbers of medium-range missiles launched from North Korea or Iran.
While the budget gives the military a 2.6 percent pay raise, it does not provide any raise for the nearly 800,000 civilians in the Defense Department, who are critical to the defense of the nation.
Finally, for the second year in a row, the Trump administration has paid for the defense increases by slashing funding for the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development by nearly 30 percent, or $16 billion total, a decision that 150 retired generals say will weaken U.S. national security.
Rapid increases will lead to excessive and careless military spending
Moreover, when defense spending rises so rapidly, it disincentivizes the Pentagon’s leadership to spend taxpayer money wisely. For example, when a Defense Business Board report showed that the Defense Department could save $125 billion over five years by reducing its back-office staff, the Pentagon not only tried to bury the report but also fired the board’s director. Just weeks ago, the first audit of any defense entity found that the Defense Logistics Agency could not account for $800 million; that its largest procurement program—the F-35—currently has about 1,000 unresolved deficiencies; and that the Pentagon failed to request permission from Congress this year to start the base closure process even though it has about 20 percent excess capacity.
In addition, loading the Pentagon with these extra dollars will reduce the incentive of its leadership to bring under control the cost overruns of its weapons systems or to retire legacy systems. A 2016 report by Deloitte showed that cost growth for the major weapons systems currently amounts to about $500 billion. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued that the Pentagon could save significant funds by building smaller, conventionally powered aircraft carriers and by reducing the total number of F-35s and littoral combat ships.
Finally, with the budget increases, there will be no incentive to deal with the rising costs of military personnel, even though from 2001 to 2012, the cost per active duty service member has risen by more than 60 percent after accounting for inflation.
No matter how much this nation spends on defense, it cannot buy perfect security. However, it would be unwise to bring levels of U.S. defense spending above what they were, on average, during the Cold War, or at the height of the Reagan buildup, which peaked in 1985 at $630 billion—in FY 2018 dollars—before declining to $556 billion in Reagan’s last year in office.
After 9/11, Americans were more than willing to raise taxes in order to fight the global war on terror. During his time in office, however, former President George W. Bush not only did not ask them to do so, but he actually reduced taxes, all while increasing the defense budget 83 percent from $432 billion to $789 billion—even spending more than $1 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This put the United States on a path to the huge deficits that continue to plague its economy today. Fred Bartels of The Heritage Foundation points out, “Financing the military through debt sets the nation up for failure and makes the buildup less sustainable.” Hopefully, the next Congress will act to ensure that defense spending is brought under control or that taxes are increased.
Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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