Michèle Flournoy, chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, was undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2012.
In his address Tuesday to Congress, President Trump promised to make sure that the U.S. military gets what it needs to carry out its mission by securing “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.” More funding would surely be a good thing, although the issues of how much and what for are complicated. No one should be under any illusions that a higher Defense Department top line guarantees a more capable armed forces.
Trump is reportedly seeking $54 billion over the sequester caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which would bring 2018 defense spending to $603 billion. While Trump may view this proposal as historic, it’s only 3 percent more than President Barack Obama’s final budget request. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee has called for a much larger increase — to nearly $640 billion.
And as the post-9/11 defense buildup taught us, throwing more money at the Pentagon is not a panacea. What matters is how the money is spent. So what should we look for in the president’s budget request?
First, how is spending allocated across readiness, force structure and modernization?
There is broad consensus in the Pentagon and Congress that the most urgent priority is addressing readiness shortfalls that affect the military’s ability to respond quickly to crises and other near-term demands. Every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has highlighted readiness problems — such as inadequate training time and maintenance and replacement of equipment — as a source of accumulating risk. While Congress’s willingness to provide war funding — “overseas contingency operations” funds — above baseline defense spending has helped, it has not solved the problem.
The larger challenge will be striking the right balance between building a bigger force and building a better one. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has rightly defined his priority as building a “larger, more capable, and more lethal joint force” to contend with a more challenging international security environment and increasingly capable adversaries. But there are tradeoffs between paying for additional personnel and force structure vs. investing in the technology and capabilities necessary to prevail in more contested air, land, maritime, cyber and space domains. Although some increases in force size may be warranted, such as a larger Navy fleet and modest increases elsewhere, the dramatic across-the-board hikes in force structure that Trump proposed during his campaign are both unaffordable and unwise.
The bulk of any additional defense investment must focus on maintaining and extending our technological and warfighting edge, including in cyber, electronic and anti-submarine arenas, unmanned systems, automation, long-range striking and protected communications. U.S. military leaders should moderate their appetite for a bigger force today to protect critical investments in cutting-edge capabilities that will determine whether we succeed on the battlefield tomorrow.
Second, are deterrence and alliance capabilities being strengthened?
Critical to the United States’ ability to deter aggression and prevent conflict in regions where we have vital interests is deploying U.S. military forces forward and helping allies and partners build their own defense capacity. Some of these costs, such as those associated with routinely deploying naval forces around the world, reside in the base defense budget. Others, such as the European Reassurance Initiative, will be covered by annual overseas contingency funding. Still others, such as helping Israel field more robust missile defense systems, are enabled by the State Department’s foreign military financing. These investments, although relatively small in dollars, are disproportionately important to reducing the risk of more costly U.S. military engagements.
Third, does the budget keep faith with the men and women who serve? Any budget that claims to strengthen the U.S. military must put people first. Doing so requires reform. For example, does the budget adopt sensible reforms to military health care to improve quality while reining in costs? Does it improve education and professional development? Does it enable more flexible career paths to retain the best and brightest? Does it include a round of Base Realignment and Closure to shed the 30 percent of infrastructure the service chiefs say they no longer need, enabling savings to be reinvested in better training and equipment for those we send into harm’s way?
Fourth, how will we pay for the increased defense spending? The Trump administration has promised dollar-for-dollar cuts in non-defense programs, reportedly targeting the State Department and USAID for cuts of 30percent or more. This would create an even more imbalanced national security toolkit, limiting our ability to prevent crises through diplomacy and development and result in an overreliance on the military. As Mattis said while head of the U.S. Central Command, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” This approach also is unlikely to fly in Congress. Absent a larger budget deal that includes tax reform and reins in non-discretionary spending on Social Security and Medicare, the most likely result is a larger deficit.
Finally, if this defense spending increase isn’t part of a larger budget deal providing predictable spending levels for the next several years, it won’t have the desired impact. If the Pentagon is forced to operate under the threat of sequestration, it will not have the predictability necessary to make smart multiyear investments in the capabilities on which our security will hinge.
Trump is right to raise the need for more defense dollars, but Congress should scrub his request carefully to ensure that the money is spent wisely and not at the expense of non-defense programs that are critical to U.S. national security.