Sherlock Holmes once solved the mystery of a disappearing racehorse by noting “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” But, a Scotland Yard detective objected, “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” Holmes’ laconic reply: “That was the curious incident.”
Today, in Washington, D.C., the dog that isn’t barking is the defense budget. It is the biggest issue that no one — at least no one outside the defense policy community — is talking about.
There are plenty of warning signs that the defense budget is too small to meet the United States’ global commitments, and that military readiness is suffering with dangerous consequences. Back in June, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee that, having returned to the military after four years of retirement, he was “shocked by what I’ve seen with our readiness to fight.”
What shocks a hardened warrior like Mattis? Defense analyst Dan Goure notes: “The Army has only three brigade combat teams out of more than 50 fully manned, equipped and trained for major conflict … Due to a lack of spare parts and insufficient maintenance dollars, only about half of Navy and Marine Corps front line fighters are currently available for combat. In addition, the Air Force is short some 1,000 pilots even though its size has shrunk significantly over the past decade.”
Yet despite these shortcomings, the “operations tempo” for the military, especially the Navy, Air Force and Special Operations Forces, remains as high as ever. The Navy has seen its fleet reduced from 594 ships in 1987 to just 278 ships today, yet it still keeps roughly the same number of ships deployed outside home waters. That means crews have to work at a frenetic pace; naval expert Seth Cropsey of the Hudson Institute says it’s common for sailors to work 100-hour weeks.
This punishing ops tempo is believed to have contributed to two terrible accidents suffered by destroyers this summer — both the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald collided with merchant ships, killing a total of 17 sailors. The ship shortfall will only be exacerbated by those collisions, with the Fitzgerald likely to be out of service for more than a year. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer says, “We have been punching way above our weight and possibly robbing Peter to pay Paul to get our missions done, and now the bills are coming home.”
The Marine Corps is also paying a terrible price for the shortfall of defense dollars. According to data obtained by Breaking Defense, “aircraft accidents have killed 62 Marines in the last six years, compared to just 10 personnel from the much larger Navy.” The deadly accidents include the crash of a MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft in August, killing three, and of a KC-130T transport aircraft in July, killing 16. The problem is that the Marine Corps is flying aging aircraft such as AV-8 Harrier jump jets (which entered service in 1985), early models of the F/A-18 Hornet (1984), and the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter (1981). The money simply isn’t there to rapidly phase out these aging aircraft with newer models such as the F-35.
Overall, the Heritage Foundation finds in its 2018 Index of U.S. Military Strength that “the United States’ military posture is rated ‘marginal’ and is trending toward ‘weak.’” Heritage analysts rate the Army and Marine Corps as “weak” and the Navy and Air Force as “marginal.” The military has had to abandon its historic, post-1945 commitment to fight two major wars at once — that is simply beyond its current capabilities.
Those trends are all the more alarming when we see America’s rivals — including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea — rapidly building up their arsenals. Russia has rebounded from the nadir of the 1990s to field increasingly professional military forces equipped with high-tech weapons that allow Vladimir Putin to project power as far away as Syria. China, meanwhile, is building aircraft, missiles, submarines and even aircraft carriers to tilt the balance of power in the Western Pacific in its favor. Both Russia and China now field ultra-quiet diesel submarines that are hard for the U.S. Navy to detect.
These are dangerous developments that threaten to unravel the post-1945 Pax Americana and leave the United States and its allies vulnerable to aggression. The problem is widely recognized in both Congress and the Trump administration, yet it is unlikely that anything will be done about it.
During last year’s campaign, Donald Trump promised more defense spending to increase the army from a planned active-duty end strength of 450,000 personnel to 540,000; the Marine Corps from 24 infantry battalions to 36; the Navy from 278 combat ships to 350; and the Air Force from 915 combat-ready fighter aircraft to 1,200. Those are good goals. But the defense budget that the Trump administration released in March doesn’t come close to funding those commitments.
Trump proposes adding $54 billion, or 10 percent, to the core defense budget (excluding wartime costs). Although the president boasts that this is “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history,” it is, in reality, only the 16th-largest increase since 1977. And it is wholly inadequate to the size of the challenge. Given the limited capacity of U.S. shipyards, it would take 18 years to create a 350-ship Navy at a rate of four new ships a year. The Trump defense budget funds just one, or possibly two, new ships for 2017-18.
Recognizing the shortfall, the Senate and House just approved a $700 billion defense budget — a significant increase from Trump’s $603 billion request. So, problem solved, right? Wrong. This is only an “authorization” bill, and its passage is largely symbolic. The actual money for the Pentagon has to come from appropriations bills, and the appropriators are unlikely to be so generous, because they have competing priorities.
Republicans want tax cuts; the tax bill passed by the House last week would add $1.7 trillion to the already large federal budget deficits, crowding out defense spending. Democrats don’t like the tax cuts, but most of them want more domestic, not defense, spending. Although there are defense hawks on both sides of the aisle, neither caucus, at the end of the day, prioritizes defense spending over other ideological commitments.
And neither, for that matter, does the Trump administration. Note that the president — who has plenty of time to opine on the NFL, the “fake media,” Jimmy Kimmel, the mayor of San Juan, Hillary Clinton, Gold Star families, “Little Rocket Man,” “Al Frankenstein” and other favorite targets — has absolutely nothing to say about defense spending. It simply isn’t a priority for him, or for his aides. Even Mattis, who favors more defense spending, has not made it a single-minded priority in the way that Caspar Weinberger did in the 1980s.
Back in the Reagan administration, the president settled the debate between Weinberger and budget director David Stockman firmly in favor of the Pentagon. Today, the widespread sense is that budget director Mick Mulvaney calls the shots more than Mattis does. Mattis is a probably distracted simply preventing Trump from launching World War III, with little energy left over for budget fights. In any case, he is by nature and experience a warrior, not an accountant.
The result of the bipartisan, bicameral lack of urgency is that the Pentagon is being funded with a three-month “continuing resolution” that was passed in early September and expires in early December. There is a real risk, in fact, that congressional leaders will fail to agree to a budget by then and will simply pass another continuing resolution, even though the military complains that this make it impossible to do long-term planning or budgeting. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, rightly called this “fricking stupid” and describes it as “borderline legislative malpractice.”
Yet, with presidential leadership on this issue (or any other) effectively AWOL, there is scant chance of fixing what ails defense. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, “We are gambling with the lives of the best among us and we’re now seeing the cost — the tragic but foreseeable costs of an overworked, strained force with aging equipment and not enough of it.” The gamble is going to continue, with the losers being the men and women in uniform sworn to protect the United States.
Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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