With Republicans retaining control of the House and Senate, President-elect Donald Trump might think it will be easy to push through his plans for “peace through strength” but he’s offered dubious rationales for why we need a much larger military. And his proposals for how he would pay for the additional spending are incomplete and inadequate.
He outlined his plans in a speech in early September. The high points include:
- Active-duty Army: 540,000, up from 491,365 today, and currently projected to hit 450,000 in 2018, and stay there through 2020;
- Marine Corps: 36 battalions, up from 23 now;
- Navy: 350 surface ships and submarines, up from 276 today (the Navy’s current plans call for 308 ships by 2021, peaking at 313 in 2025);
- Air Force: 1,200+ fighter aircraft; which is close to today’s inventory of 1,113;
- A “State of the art missile defense system”; and
- Major investments in cybertechnology, both offensive and defensive.
Estimates for what it would cost to implement these changes vary, but most experts doubt that Trump can make up the difference without raising taxes or adding to the deficit. His call for “common sense reforms that eliminate government waste and budget gimmicks,” is extremely vague, and it seems unlikely that Democrats will agree to relax the Budget Control Act caps on defense spending while leaving non-defense caps in place.
The bigger question is what Trump plans to do with this much-larger military. He is right to be skeptical of nation-building in foreign lands. He scorned Hillary Clinton’s support for the regime-change wars in Iraq and Libya. Those types of missions often require vast forces, especially ground troops, willing to remain in those countries for decades, or longer. But if he doubts that such missions are needed or wise, why does he call for increasing the active duty Army and Marine Corps? What does he expect them to be doing that they aren’t already?
Fighting terrorists doesn’t require a massive military, either. The hard part is finding terrorists, not killing them once found. Thus, the most effective operations against groups like al Qaeda involve timely intelligence, active cooperation with local actors, and occasionally the precise application of force.
ISIS is different, because it, unlike al Qaeda, chose to occupy territory that can be targeted by traditional military force. But if Trump follows through on his plans to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” that doesn’t require massive U.S. ground forces either.
Lastly, Trump hasn’t adequately explained how he would ensure that the military spends the money that it has wisely and efficiently. In inflation-adjusted dollars, American taxpayers spend more on our military today than we did during most of the Cold War, and yet we appear to be spending more, and getting less. Increasing the military budget by 10 percent or more won’t make it easier to control rising costs; if anything, it will allow the Pentagon to forego difficult but necessary reforms.
I hope to hear more in the coming weeks about what President-elect Trump will do to rein in the Pentagon’s civilian work force, eliminate excess overhead, including unneeded bases, and modernize military compensation. Members of Congress have either failed to address, or actively blocked, reform proposals thus far. Time will tell whether having Trump in the White House will stiffen their spine.