War Stories

All Guns, No Butter

Trump’s budget is a return to the let-’er-rip era of defense spending.

U.S. Marines prepare themselves before going training with Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers in Helmand province, Afghanistan July 6, 2017.
U.S. Marines prepare themselves before going training with Afghan National Army soldiers in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on July 6.
Omar Sobhani/Reuters

Back in 2013, when Gen. James Mattis was head of the U.S. Central Command, he told the Senate, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

On Monday, President Trump proposed cutting this year’s State Department’s budget by 26 percent. Fulfilling his own prediction, Secretary of Defense Mattis is proposing a 28 percent increase in spending for missiles and munitions—a 50 percent increase over the sum for those items in President Obama’s last budget.

To put it another way: The $20.7 billion he’s requesting for just missiles and munitions—a mere 3 percent of the total military budget—amounts to just a little less than the $25.8 billion that Trump is asking for the entire State Department.

Such is the lopsided picture of national security displayed by Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal.

The administration is asking for $716 billion for the total military budget—a 10 percent increase over the current level. (This includes $686 billion for the Defense Department and $30 billion for other departments’ defense-related items, including the Energy Department’s nuclear labs and warheads.)

At a news conference, Pentagon officials, attempting to minimize the economic burden of such a large budget, noted that it amounts to just 3.1 percent of GDP. But this means little, especially at a time of overall economic growth. More pertinent facts about the budget might include these:

• As a percentage of discretionary federal spending, the Defense Department is allotted almost exactly the same as all other departments combined.

• Almost all government departments are cut, in some cases drastically, except defense.

• Finally, for all of Mattis’ talk of sound management practices, his budget kills just one program—an upgrade of the Air Force’s 20-year-old JSTARS battle-management plane—which would have cost $7 billion over several years. Mattis has decided instead to build a new plane.

In short, we are seeing the return of a let-’er-rip era in defense spending, last seen in the George W. Bush administration. Trump is outspokenly inclined to give his generals whatever they want. Congress last week handed the Pentagon an extra $160 billion—for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 combined—with no strings attached.

Certainly there are shortfalls in the military’s budget, especially given the almost constant rotation of ships, planes, and troops to battle zones worldwide. Mattis’ budget fills some of these with huge increases in the “operations and maintenance” account, a boost in innovative procurement practices and a well-deserved 2.6 percent hike in military pay.

But opening up the spigots so widely, and unconditionally, sends a message to the defense bureaucrats and program managers: Keep the money flowing out, and it will keep flowing in.

Here’s one small but telling indicator. Ever since the mid-1960s, the three main services—the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy (including the Marines)—have received an equal share of the total military budget, plus or minus one or two percentage points. This was a formula, hit upon by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to avoid the internecine warfare that had plagued the services’ relations up till that time. Toward the end of the Obama years, this artifice became unsustainable: The Army stopped building big new tanks while the Navy and Air Force kept building more ships and planes. So, in Obama’s last year, as a share of the three services’ budgets, the Navy got 36 percent, the Air Force 35 percent, and the Army a mere 29 percent.

In the budget that the Pentagon released on Monday, the three services are back to equal handouts: The Navy and Air Force each get 34 percent, the Army 32 percent. So either a rational divvying up of defense dollars just happens to allot each service almost the exact same amount, or bureaucratic games are going on.

So how would the $716 billion be spent, if—as is likely—Congress lets the administration do as it pleases? The picture is clearer if we look just at the Pentagon’s $686 billion share.

• Ten percent of it, or $69 billion, goes for “overseas contingency operations,” i.e., to fight the wars, including $46.3 billion for the war in Afghanistan and $15.3 billion for the wars in Syria and Iraq.

• A huge increase is in shipbuilding, from the $27 billion in Obama’s last budget to $31 billion for fiscal year 2018 to $33.1 billion for fiscal year 2019—including two Virginia-class submarines, three Aegis cruisers, and one aircraft carrier—with plans to boost the number of Navy ships in the next four years from 289 to 326. This may make sense, given the vast expansion of U.S. military missions around the globe. No one is asking whether this expansion of missions makes sense.

• An increase in missile defense programs from $8.5 billion in Obama’s last year to $9.9 billion.

• The beginnings of an increase in strategic nuclear weapons, including $2.3 billion (on top of the $2 billion in Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget) for the new B-21 long-range bomber and $600 million (on top of $500 million in ’18) for a new air-launched cruise missile.

• An increase in spending for combat planes from $45.3 billion in Obama’s last year to $55.2 billion in 2019, almost one-fifth of it—$10.7 billion—for 77 F-35 stealth jet fighters (which are still experiencing difficulties in tests of theiractual stealthiness).

Officials at the Pentagon’s news conference indulged in some of the usual rhetorical hat tricks, not least the claim by Comptroller David Norquist that in 2016, the U.S. military was the smallest it’s been since World War II. As Norquist well knows, smallest does not necessarily mean least capable. One would be hard-pressed to find a general or admiral who would trade the military of 2016 with that of almost any previous year.

Few analysts in Congress, or in the think-tank world, scrutinize the defense budget the way they once did. When a nation is at war, much less when it’s embroiled in a half-dozen wars, there is a natural tendency to give the generals and admirals whatever they say they need.

But, again, 90 percent of Trump’s defense budget has little to do with the wars we’re fighting but rather with the wars we might be fighting in the future. There’s vast room for debate about those wars: the chances we’ll really be fighting, the merits of whether we should be, the weapons we’d need to do so, and—not least—the things we might be doing now to prevent those wars from erupting, some of which have nothing to do with the size of the defense budget.

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