Trying to justify a major funding increase for the Pentagon, President Trump refers repeatedly to the U.S. military as “depleted.” If true — and that’s always the first issue with anything emanating from Trump –it raises some fundamentally important issues.
In 2015, the most recent year for which we have full, comparative data, the United States spent $596 billion on its military. That’s more than the next seven countries combined. Trump now calls for increasing that amount by $54 billion for the 2018 fiscal year, while also increasing current-year, 2017 defense spending by $30 billion.
Just to put that into context: That proposed $84 billion increase in military spending — just the increase — is significantly greater than Russia’s entire annual military budget of $66 billion.
Maybe it’s just me, but if we’re spending that much more money and still producing a military that is “depleted”, maybe we’re doing something wrong. It’s also important to note that Trump has proposed adding tens of thousands of active-duty military personnel, dozens of new ships and significant upgrades of the Air Force strategic bomber fleet. None of those efforts would be funded by this proposed increase, meaning that it’s merely a down payment for much bigger spending increases to come.
That reflects one of Washington’s most ironclad ironies: Those people who are most likely to launch into a lecture that you can’t solve a problem by throwing more money at it are always the same people demanding that we do exactly that when the debate turns to defense.
Look at the list of top military spenders: Eight of the top 10 nations, and 15 of the top 20, are close U.S. military allies such as Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, France, Germany, South Korea and Japan. Many of those countries buy their military equipment from us, further binding them to our alliance. The combined annual military spending of the United States and those allies is $1.1 trillion, far outstripping any plausible combination against us.
China has no such allies.
Russia has no such allies.
Those countries also cannot begin to match U.S. firepower or capabilities. For example, we have 10 aircraft carrier strike groups, with an 11th due to come on line this year. Russia has one aircraft carrier, and that carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, was strained to its breaking point last year by deploying in the near waters of the Mediterranean, off of Syria. The Kuznetsov carries just 15 planes — one quarter of the number of a modern American carrier — and has to be deployed with its own tugboat because its engines keep breaking down.
China also has just one aircraft carrier, built upon the platform of an old Soviet carrier that was still under construction but abandoned at the end of the Cold War.
In explaining his proposed buildup this week, Trump cast it as part of his “Make America Great Again” theme. Back when he was in high school and college, he recalled, “Everybody used to say America never lost a war. Now we never win and don’t fight to win.” He believes that he and he alone can change that record.
To put it bluntly, that’s just crazy talk. When U.S. military action has failed to achieve its desired goals — Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan — that failure can’t be blamed on a shortage of firepower. Instead, our problem has been that we fought the wrong wars and that we fought them stupidly, believing that we could kill our way to victory.
Nobody fights us in that kind of war anymore because they know they would lose. In the favorite words of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s new national security adviser, “There are two ways to fight the United States military: Asymmetrically and stupid.” By “stupid,” he means the way that Saddam Hussein tried to fight us in the 1991 Gulf War, pitting firepower against firepower with disastrous results. By “asymmetrically,” he means through insurgency, terrorism and other politically oriented means, which have a much better record of success.
Our top military leaders understand that firepower alone cannot win an asymmetric war, even if their commander in chief does not. In fact, as part of his new budget, Trump will apparently propose drastic cuts to foreign aid and significantly reduced funding for the State Department, Peace Corps and related programs. That change was announced Tuesday, and already more than 120 retired three- and four-star generals have written a letter of protest to Congress, warning that the State Department, the Peace Corps and foreign aid programs “are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”
That letter – signed by Gen. David Petraeus and Admiral James Stavridis, among others — also quotes Trump’s secretary of defense, Gen. James Mattis, when he served in 2013 as head of U.S. Central Command. “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition,” Mattis said at the time.
In short, this is not a carefully thought-out strategy from the Trump administration, based on consultation with the experts and our allies. Instead, the man who took five draft deferments to avoid fighting in Vietnam, the man who says that he knows better than the generals how to defeat ISIS and who claims he understands the military because he attended a military-themed boarding school, is offering a military strategy fueled largely by his own deep personal insecurities.
And here’s my biggest worry. In the weeks and months to come, Trump is likely to get increasingly frustrated by his inability to bend Congress to his will, by continued criticism from the media and perhaps by falling poll numbers. Looking for an outlet that will satisfy his grandiose dreams for himself and rally the country behind him, he is likely to turn to foreign policy, where a president has very few real constraints on his ambitions.
That’s a recipe for real, real trouble in a world already teetering too close to the edge.