One of President Trump’s longest-standing political promises has been to rebuilding U.S. military strength. The White House boasts of “historic strides” in this effort, and Trump’s tweet celebrating the passage of this year’s defense appropriations bill boasted of “new planes, ships, missiles, rockets and equipment of every kind, and all made right here in the USA.”
Alas, the president’s claim is more hat than cattle. While the Pentagon’s annual “topline” has crept past the $700 billion mark, it remains the case that about 10% of that amount is in the “Overseas Contingency Operations” account that mostly goes to pay for the continued costs of military deployments in the Middle East and elsewhere. This is not merely a haphazard approach to managing the budget that forestalls longer-term planning, it reflects the fact that the hoped for ‘Trump Buildup” is, as the saying goes, fake news.
Indeed, the truer measures of national purpose — calculating defense spending as a slice of gross domestic product or of federal spending — reveal that national security continues to diminish as an American priority. Under Trump, the Pentagon budget has dipped to its pre-9/11 low of less than 3% of GDP and 15% of overall federal spending, dwarfed by mandatory and “entitlement” spending (about 62% of federal outlays and 13% of GDP). Servicing the national debt, the most “mandatory” spending of all, accounts for an additional 7% of government expenditures.
Thus the armed services, as they prepare for their upcoming budget requests, are weighing substantial program cuts. Consider the Navy, which Trump promised to expand to 355 warships — it’s now about 300, depending on what the definition of “ship” is — by the end of the decade. Recently, the respected trade publication Defense News reported that the sea service is likely to axe five of 12 planned purchases of its current line of destroyers over the next five years, as well as delaying starts on attack submarine and frigate builds while decommissioning four of its 22 aging Ticonderoga-class cruisers and canceling life-extension refits for others. According to Navy planners, the size of the fleet is likely to drop to 287 ships.
As has been the case since the end of the Cold War, these sorts of reductions are being framed as investments in new technologies and a preference for quality over quantity. And, considering the constantly stagnating pace of U.S. military modernization and the increase in adversary, particularly Chinese, military power, there is a logic in that argument.
Yet the one great — though still unlearned — lesson of the past generation has been the shortfall in capacity rather than capability. In the South China Sea, for example, the problem is not that Chinese ships and other weaponry is superior to that of the United States and its allies, it’s that they’re there and we’re not.
The shifting balance of global military power is, however, less a product of inadequate spending or lagging technological innovation as it is a failure of strategic imagination. American planning remains, as it was against the Soviet Union, driven by the assessment of threats rather than an appreciation of geopolitical interests; we know our adversaries but not ourselves. We have forgotten the fundamental insight of the Truman administration that “domination of the potential power of Eurasia” by a hostile power or coalition “would be strategically and politically unacceptable to the United States.” We can’t remember what our purpose is, what victory means.
Consequently we have been constantly content to redefine our military planning downward. Where we once strove to build to a global, “multiple-and-simultaneous” campaign standard — as early as 1940, Congress passed a “Two-Ocean Navy Act” — we now hope to field a one-war force. But this hope is no method for a global power, let alone a nation that not so long ago considered itself “history’s sole superpower.” The proper question to ask about defense spending is not, “How much is enough?” but rather, “What is sufficient to defend our global interests?”
Giselle Donnelly is a resident fellow in defense and national security at the American Enterprise Institute. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.