Reality Has Got to Set In: The Trump Administration and the Defense Budget

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

For a moment, try to ignore President Donald Trump’s tweets and rambling speeches and let’s look at what the Trump administration may be thinking about when it comes to his campaign promise to rebuild what he has termed “our depleted military.”

The Trump White House website came up on January 20th with the statement, “President Trump will end the defense sequester and submit a new budget to Congress outlining a plan to rebuild our military.” It also promises to pursue “the highest level of military readiness,” that Pentagon officials have said has been underfunded, plus “develop a state-of-the-art missile defense system to protect against missile-based attacks from states like Iran and North Korea.”

That’s about it.

Trump has never really described a national defense strategy. However, his new White House website’s “America First Foreign Policy” statement primarily speaks about using military and intelligence assets to accomplish “peace through strength” with diplomacy only mentioned later as another tool.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in his study released January 16th entitled “Restoring American Power,” proposed a defense strategy and provided an estimated budget for rebuilding the American military; it resembles much of Trump’s more generalized campaign rhetoric.

McCain described the current U.S. military as being shaped “for fighting in relatively permissive environments and too small to serve as a credible deterrent force in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, while conducting prolonged counterterrorism operations worldwide.”

Trump has never gone into that kind of detail and has been contradictory at times about whether, where or how he would use military force, other than the version of what he said during a 2015 CBS interview: “I want to have a much stronger military. I want it to be so strong that nobody is going to mess with us.”

McCain wants to change the current mix of forces.

“On the lower end of the spectrum, we need greater numbers of more affordable, less advanced systems to fight terrorist enemies in permissive environments,” according to his study. “On the higher end of the spectrum, as nation-state rivals can increasingly counter our military’s ability to project power, we need longer-range, more survivable platforms and munitions, more autonomous systems, greater cyber and space capabilities, among other new technologies.”

He also wants our “global military posture” to be “more forward, flexible, resilient, and formidable.”

In broad strokes, Trump wants to increase the size of the U.S. Army to 540,000 active duty soldiers. McCain believes the Army needs to grow, but says a study by the Army itself, is needed “to recommend the optimum size.”

He adds that “a realistic objective is to add 8,000 a year through fiscal 2022.”

Trump wants to rebuild the U.S. Navy toward a goal of 350 ships; McCain puts it at 355, but talks about how slowly that would have to come about because of a lack of shipbuilding facilities.

For the Air Force, Trump sets the combat coded fighter figure at 1,200, a number McCain agrees with, but points out that to field that number requires 2,250 fighters overall.

What’s the prospective cost?

McCain proposes a base fiscal 2018 defense budget of $640 billion to include funds for the Energy Department’s share of the nuclear weapons costs, plus another $60 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) or a grand total of $700 billion.

Overall, that would be almost an $80 billion increase from the current Obama fiscal 2017 budget, or some 12 percent over this year’s spending, In addition, under McCain’s proposal, the defense spending bill would grow another four percent a year over the next five years to pay for the buildup in personnel, equipment and infrastructure as well as cover inflation increases to things like pay and health care.

By fiscal 2020, the McCain defense budget estimate would reach a projected $800.5 billion.

McCain’s proposal, as well as Trump’s, are obviously based on Congress finally repealing the defense spending limits of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), something Congress has not done, even under Republican House and Senate control and with Obama administration support.

That move would bring an end to Congress misusing the OCO account, which supposedly pays for fighting overseas in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and so doesn’t get included in the BCA limits. Republicans, over Obama administration objections, put base budget elements into the OCO account to avoid spending above those BCA limits.

McCain described the Congress’ “abuse of OCO” as reaching “new levels of dishonesty.” His proposal provides some $350 billion over the next five years in order, as McCain put it, “to begin to dig the military out of years of [base] budget cuts.”

Needless to say, other than Trump’s well publicized efforts to cut the cost of F-35 and the new Air Force Ones, there is no indication from the new administration as to how it would plan to pay for these additional defense costs, which McCain estimated would add $430 billion, over the next five years, to the already planned Obama defense base budget expenditures.

When it comes to paying bills for defense, there are for the Trump administration no “alternative facts” to the actual numbers that will be involved when they submit their fiscal 2018 budget in the next few months.

Reality has got to set in.

McCain on Sunday’s ABC This Week was asked, “Do you have utmost confidence in President Trump?” His frank answer was, “I do not know, because he has made so many comments that are contradictory.”

An “encouraging sign,” McCain said, was that Trump appointed the national security team of General [James] Mattis, General [Mike] Flynn, General [John] Kelly, and Dan Coates.

“I’m confident that he [Trump] will listen to them and be guided by them,” McCain said.

Don’t be so sure. I don’t believe Trump yet understands the real world of Washington, the government, or the meaning of being Commander-in-Chief.

Two recent examples appeared over just the past weekend.

At the January 20 inaugural luncheon in Statuary Hall, Trump said, “I see my generals — those generals are gonna keep us so safe. They’re gonna have a lot of problems, the other side. They’re gonna look at — they’re gonna look at a couple of them — these are central casting. If I’m doing a movie, I pick you, General, General Mattis.”

That, along with his nickname “Mad Dog,” actually may be why Trump picked Mattis.

One day later, Trump spoke to more than 300 current employees at CIA’s headquarters before the wall of stars commemorating fallen Agency officers. He gave an embarrassing, meandering 17-minute talk, which featured, among other irrelevant material, his often repeated statement during the campaign about his academic uncle, a noted physicist who was a professor at MIT for 35 years, as a way to prove a point about himself.

“He was an academic genius,” Trump said, adding, “And then they say, is Donald Trump an intellectual? Trust me, I’m like a smart person.”

Saying things like that shows he is not that smart, nor is he near being “presidential.”

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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