— President Trump, in a news conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the White House, Oct. 16
“We were very low. I could even say it stronger. I don’t want to say, ‘No ammunition,’ but that gets a lot closer.”
— Trump, in remarks at the White House, Sept. 16
This is a good example of how Trump’s most-repeated claims tend to become more exaggerated over time. The president has insisted in recent weeks that when he took office in 2017, the U.S. military brass told him there was no more ammunition.
As the two quotes above show, the claim quickly grew from snowball to avalanche. Trump hedged in September: “We were very low … I don’t want to say ‘no ammunition.’ ” But one month later, the hedges were gone: “One of our generals came in to see me and he said, ‘Sir, we don’t have ammunition.’ I said, ‘That’s a terrible thing you just said.’ He said, ‘We don’t have ammunition.’ ”
Had the president stuck to his formulation in September, we might have skipped this fact check. Near the end of President Barack Obama’s term, military leaders publicly warned that stockpiles of precision-guided munitions were running low.
But Trump has taken this claim to the extreme. It’s a huge exaggeration to say the U.S. military had run out of ammunition when Trump took office.
Military leaders began to voice concern during Obama’s second term that stockpiles of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) were running low. However, U.S. officials were taking steps to address the shortage before Trump took office.
“We’ve recently been hitting [the Islamic State terrorist group] with so many GPS-guided smart bombs and laser-guided rockets that we’re starting to run low on the ones that we use against terrorists the most,” then-Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said in February 2016, nearly a year before Obama left office. “So we’re investing $1.8 billion in FY 2017 to buy over 45,000 more of them.”
Notice how we’re talking about smart bombs or guided missiles, not bullets or hand grenades.
“Precision strike systems utilize projectiles, bombs, missiles, torpedoes, and other weapons that can actively correct for initial aiming or subsequent errors by homing on their targets or aim-points after being fired, released, or launched,” according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
PGMs have been used since World War II, but they became central to U.S. military strategy during the Gulf War in the early 1990s. Since then, the ability to deploy bombs and missiles with increasingly sophisticated homing capabilities has given the U.S. military a global edge, allowing it to achieve air superiority and freedom of movement at sea and on the ground.
“The Gulf War showed how radically precision attack had transformed the traditional notion of running a military campaign and, especially, an air campaign,” Richard P. Hallion, an Air Force historian, wrote in a 1995 study. “On opening night of the war, attacks by strike aircraft and cruise missiles against air defense and command and control facilities essentially opened up Iraq for subsequent conventional attackers. Precision attacks against the Iraqi Air Force destroyed it in its hangars, and precipitated an attempted mass exodus of aircraft to Iran. Key precision weapon attacks against bridges served to ‘channelize’ the movement of Iraqi forces and create fatal bottlenecks, and many Iraqis, in frustration, simply abandoned their vehicles and walked away.”
By 2011, PGMs had evolved to the point where “armed drones reportedly operated by the CIA successfully unleashed a barrage of Hellfire missiles at a car carrying Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim cleric, and other top operatives of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, killing Mr. Awlaki after a two-year manhunt,” according to the Congressional Research Service report.
Fast-forward a few more years, and PGMs were being used in more than 99 percent of all strikes against the Islamic State. The Air Force’s acquisition chief said in February that U.S. forces had dropped “over 70,000 weapons on ISIS,” according to Air Force magazine. Here’s more:
The key weapons in the fight are the satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, which comes in variants ranging from 500 pounds up to 2,000 pounds; the AGM-114 Hellfire laser guided missile, which equips Army helicopters as well as Air Force MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft; the Small Diameter Bomb, which is a 250-pound satellite-guided munition; and Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, or APKWS, a seeker head for Hydra rockets carried by helicopters and F-16 fighters. These weapons have been used the most in the war against ISIS since the rules of engagement demand extreme precision: ISIS targets are usually mixed in among civilians, and the coalition has made minimizing civilian deaths a top priority.
Boeing is producing 45,000 JDAMs per year to keep up, the magazine reported. But the demand for these weapons has tested manufacturers.
“Typically if you drop a bomb today, it’s going to take you two years from now to get the appropriation to replace it, another year or two to actually get it on the shelf,” Gen. Mark Welsh, then the Air Force chief of staff, said in a 2015 interview with Defense News. “Stockpiles are down. What we tend to use to replace those stockpiles of weapons used in combat is OCO [overseas contingency operations] funding.”
In a 2018 report to Congress, the Pentagon said:
The munitions and missiles industrial sector is routinely impacted by significant shifts in DoD demand as a result of various factors. The initiation or drawdown of conflicts is definitely a major factor, but a marked increase in the use of munitions for counterterrorism and decades of underinvestment in munitions ... has led to depleted inventories for key munitions, especially precision-guided and low-collateral munitions. Resupply of these key munitions as well as surge requirements for those munitions during conflicts stress the industrial base. Numerous bottlenecks with critical sub-tier suppliers preclude a rapid response to these increases in requirements, causing delays in deliveries and increased cost to the Department.
In 2016, the United States began to raid its global stockpiles of smart bombs to keep up its airstrike campaign against the Islamic State in the Middle East.
“The military is facing this shortfall because it did not forecast needing this many weapons three or more years ago when it made its budget projections,” Defense One reported that year. “At the time, no U.S. forces were in Iraq and the military was preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan. But that didn’t happen; thousands of American forces remain in Afghanistan and thousands more have gone back to Iraq to train and advise the Iraqi military. … [and] allies, in many cases, are dropping American-made, guided smart bombs.”
“The shortages came to light a year ago, and officials at the Joint Staff at the Pentagon confirm they are still a problem,” U.S. News reported in February 2017. “And it’s aggravated by the fact that 99.5 percent of all strikes against the Islamic State group employ what the military calls ‘precision weapons,’ known more commonly as ‘smart bombs,’ the expensive munitions that help the U.S.-led coalition aviators fulfill their mission of operating against enemy forces hiding in densely populated areas like Raqqa and Mosul.”
Neither the White House nor the Defense Department responded to our questions.
A Democratic aide in the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) told us in an email: “Under the Obama administration, HASC was made aware of some risk/undesired shortfalls for munitions (not ‘ammunition’) in the category of ‘precision-guided preferred munitions’ such as Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), laser-guided bombs, etc. Where applicable, we increased funding to address these critical needs.
“In the case of small arms ammunition however, the Government Accountability Office identified a potential cost savings if DoD transferred its excess ammunition to the other federal, state and local authorities. When military services make a case for additional resources, we consider those requests within the financial constraints we have available.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said it’s difficult to assess Trump’s claim because of “the classification of most such data, some of it understandable but some of it excessive.” He added: “Usually such claims are wrong, or exaggerated, or misleading.”
“The United States military has literally hundreds of types of ammunition and ordnance at any time,” O’Hanlon said. “Some may have been used recently more than expected. Some may be brand new, such that we have established what the Department of Defense calls a ‘requirement’ (but anyone else would call a goal or objective) for a certain number, but just not had the time yet to procure the intended total amount.”
CNN noted in a fact check that the Army’s deputy chief of staff for logistics testified to Congress in 2017 that there were enough munitions “for our normal requirements,” but that he would be concerned if “we had to surge.”
Here’s a roundup of the different versions of this claim Trump has made in recent weeks:
- “When I came in, we had no ammunition two and a half years ago. … The general told me, ‘Sir, I’m sorry, we have no ammunition.’ And no president should ever be in that position.” (Fox News interview, Oct. 12)
- “We had a general come to my office — respected general. And we were having big trouble with one country — first week in office, very early. He said, ‘Sir, we have no ammunition.’ I said: ‘You know what? We’re going to have ammunition — a lot of it. And hopefully we’ll never going to have to use it, but we have a lot of it.’ But I also said, ‘I never want to have another president of the United States to hear those words from a general.’ ” (Speech to the Value Voters Summit, Oct. 12)
- “When I came into office, a very prominent general told me because it looked like we could have a big conflict with some. He said, ‘Sir, we have no ammunition.’ … I never want to have a president hear the words, ‘Sir, we have no ammunition.’ ” (Campaign rally in Minneapolis, Oct. 10)
- “When I took over our military, we didn’t have ammunition. I was told by a top general — maybe the top of them all — ‘Sir, I’m sorry. Sir, we don’t have ammunition.’ I said, ‘I’ll never let another president have that happen to him or her.’ We didn’t have ammunition.” (Remarks at the White House, Oct. 7)
- “When I came in, our military was depleted. Frankly, we didn’t have ammunition, okay?” (News conference with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the White House, Sept. 20)
- “You know, when I came here three years ago almost, General Mattis told me, ‘Sir, we’re very low on ammunition.’ I said, ‘That’s a horrible thing to say.’ I’m not blaming him; I’m not blaming anybody. But that’s what he told me. Because we were at a position where, with a certain country — I won’t say which one — we may have had conflict. And he said to me, ‘Sir, if you could, delay it, because we’re very low on ammunition.’ And I said: ‘You know what, general? I never want to hear that again from another general.’ No president should ever, ever hear that statement, ‘We’re low on ammunition.’ … So, we are very high on ammunition now. That’s a story I’ve never told before. Breaking news. But we have — we were very low. I could even say it stronger. I don’t want to say, ‘No ammunition,’ but that gets a lot closer.” (Remarks at the White House, Sept. 16)
- “And I said, ‘I never want to see a president in a position like that, where we may have conflict and a general looks at him and said we have very little, slash, no ammunition.’ ” (Campaign rally in New Mexico, Sept. 16)
Trump usually speaks about an unnamed general warning him of an ammunition shortage, but at one point he name-checked Jim Mattis, a retired general and his former secretary of defense. Mattis in a December 2018 speech said: “Go back in time two years, we were fighting overseas, yet automatic spending caps had resulted in the smallest U.S. military since 1940. We had munition shortages, aircraft unable to fly, ships too often unable to sail, an aging nuclear deterrent, and an eroding technological edge over our adversaries in an era of renewed great power competition.”
The Pinocchio Test
Trump is onto something when he claims that munitions were running low at the time he took office. After targeting Islamic State operatives with tens of thousands of smart bombs and guided missiles, U.S. military officials began to say publicly that stockpiles were growing thin.
But the president’s disregard for details and accuracy earns him Three Pinocchios. Trump never limits his comments to PGMs and instead gives the impression that all ammunition was running out. Smart bombs may be the most important kind in the fight against terror, but it’s nevertheless an exaggerated claim.
Moreover, Trump’s claim has morphed from “very little” ammunition to “no ammunition.” No military official has claimed that munitions, whether PGMs or for any other kind of weapon, were depleted. Finally, we note that Carter’s comments from 2016 indicate that U.S. officials were working on rebuilding PGM stockpiles before Trump took office.
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