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Despite the initial hoopla, President Donald Trump’s proposed defense buildup isn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Of course, I exaggerate in the title. Adding billions to the Department of Defense budget, each and every year going forward, is significant. And certainly, taking that same amount out of domestic accounts plus diplomacy and foreign aid budgets constitutes a severe retrenchment. To take one example of the kind of pain that could result: With American military support, Iraqi forces will likely soon liberate the northern city of Mosul from ISIS, but that expected tactical military victory may prove no more durable than the results of the surge from 2007-2009 or so, unless a firmer political foundation is placed beneath it. After the surge, then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki so misgoverned the country and so mistreated Sunnis that the backdrop was established for the arrival of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Sunni populations were so angry with how they were treated that they decided to tolerate a reincarnation of sorts of the dreaded al Qaeda rather than succumb to Shia domination. The moral of the story is clear: Iraq will need to rebuild, govern, and police Mosul as well as other areas where ISIS was in command in a way that satisfies all major sectarian groups, lest it, again, fall back into civil warfare. The United States can help ensure the necessary consensus with a conditions-based offer of foreign assistance that the revenue-starved Iraqi petro-state desperately needs in these times of low oil prices. That foreign aid gets us leverage and influence, and improves the odds of making current hard-earned military gains durable. But it will be far harder to provide if deep cuts are made to aid budgets.
Back to the Pentagon. That $54 billion in higher annual spending actually amounts to a far smaller actual increase. As most have heard by now, the $54 billion is measured relative to the sequestration-level caps of the 2011 Budget Control Act—the harsher and more Spartan levels that were never supposed to kick in when the law was first signed. Fortunately, with the exception of several months in 2013, the Defense Department has avoided those Spartan levels. Various bridging funds, through the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, for instance, helped it stay at modestly higher budgetary totals. Thus, relative to the recent past, the proposed Trump increase is more like $20 billion in annual funding.
That would, admittedly, still be real money—more than a rounding error—except for a little problem. Trump, according to his campaign plans and subsequent rhetoric, really wants to build up the military’s size. Specifically, he has called for increases in personnel and/or combat units of ten to 15 percent for each of the four services. That will be unaffordable with just $20 billion in added annual funds—less than four percent of recent normal budgets. There is a glaring mismatch between planned increases in spending and available funds.
It's not just the force structure issue, either. For many months, voices in Washington have been claiming that there is some purported crisis in military readiness that requires the immediate injection of funds into existing units to buy more spare parts, fuel for training, and other mundane but essential needs. To be sure, there are some specific problems with readiness. And the men and women of our armed forces have a right to feel tired after 15 years of frequent and intensive deployments (even if the number of people deployed abroad today is only 15 to 25 percent of what it was a decade ago). But the data I have seen on the state of equipment and training suggest no readiness crisis. There are many strains, but as I noted in the recent article I co-authored with David Petraeus for Foreign Affairs, the force is excellent, and readiness is generally good. To the extent that the Pentagon and Capitol Hill’s conventional wisdom argues otherwise, however, resources could be largely consumed on short-term needs.
On balance, I am not as glum as this op-ed may suggest—at least in terms of the defense budget picture. (I am rather glum about foreign diplomacy and assistance accounts as well as domestic priorities that would be severely damaged in some cases by the president’s blueprint.) Trump’s proposed buildups in standard force structure strike me as more than we need. If they are scaled back substantially, the whole picture can come into balance—and perhaps we can even have some modest additional funds left for the areas of longer-term defense innovation and modernization that may otherwise wind up the victims of his current plans. So more than the initial single number, the key will be to see, in more detail, where the defense debate goes in the months ahead—and to see if we can figure out a better way to pay for it than chopping away at other “discretionary” programs in the federal budget.