Loren Thompson-A Reagan Moment Arrives For America's Military

President Trump's policy agenda is startlingly similar to that of former president Ronald Reagan. Like Reagan, Trump wants to stimulate the economy by lowering taxes, slash regulations, rebuild the military, and cut back domestic spending while protecting Social Security and Medicare.

Another similarity: Reagan and Trump both convinced former Democrats to cross party lines and vote for them by arguing that the other party had become corrupt and out of touch with traditional values. Once elected, Reagan set out to restore hope in the American Dream, and that's precisely what Trump says he wants to do.

So it's possible that one day political scientists will talk about a "Trump Revolution" the same way they talk today about the Reagan Revolution. Reagan was just as controversial in his own day as Trump is, and yet he got much of his agenda implemented. Trump actually starts out with a political advantage, because unlike Reagan his party controls both chambers of Congress (The GOP never won a majority in the House during Reagan's presidency, and lost its Senate majority in 1986).

Military spending will be an early indicator of whether Trump is able to repeat -- or surpass -- Reagan's success. The 40th president took office decrying the erosion of U.S. military power, and proceeded to boost military spending far beyond what most observers could have imagined. In 1980, the last year that Reagan's predecessor set spending priorities, the defense budget was $143 billion; by the time Reagan's second term began, it was headed over $300 billion.

Even if you deduct the effects of inflation, Reagan managed to boost the buying power of the Pentagon's budget by 40% in four years. Spending on the procurement of weapons doubled in real terms as Reagan built not one but two new bombers at the same time while growing the Navy's fleet to 600 warships and buying the Army a new tank, troop carrier, helicopters and air defenses.

Can Trump do something similar for the military? He says he wants to after eight years of Obama administration under-investment in military technology. Even the outgoing administration conceded that America's enemies had begun to close the gap in warfighting technology, as the Pentagon robbed modernization accounts in a capped budget to sustain readiness.

Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has released the closest thing we have to a budget plan for restoring American military power. If McCain's recommendations are followed, overall U.S. military spending would rise from about $600 billion last year to $700 billion in 2018 and $800 billion in 2022. That would represent 4% annual growth in military outlays between 2018 and 2022, which as chance would have it matches the rate at which President Trump says he would like to grow the economy.

In other words, the bigger defense budget McCain proposes would still represent the same claim on the economy that it does today, about 3% of GDP. Of course, that assumes the economy grows as Trump wants, which involves a lot of "ifs." But even if the economy barely budged at all during Trump's first five years in office, McCain's $800 billion in 2022 would represent only 4% of GDP -- compared to 6% or higher during the Cold War.

So McCain's number is certainly doable if Trump embraces it and then can sell the Congress on his priorities. I'm betting he can, going down in history as the first president since Reagan to truly revitalize American military power. Presidents of both parties have been putting off the need for modernization since the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of Reagan's second term, and as a result much of the military still depends on weapons that the 40th president funded.

President Trump can change that, but if he wants to have a long-term impact then he needs to follow Reagan's example of spending much of the military increase on new weapons. McCain points out in his budget blueprint that "the Army has not truly modernized for decades," so if the new money gets spent on more soldiers without better equipping them for future fights, they will become "cannon fodder" (to use the term one congressional staffer shared with me).

The same is true of the other services. They need to maintain and upgrade what they already have, but the long-term payoff can only come by replacing Cold War weapons with better technology. For instance, the F-35 fighter will be a game-changer for the joint force in Europe, because Russian radar can't see it. No amount of tinkering can make legacy fighters invisible to enemy radar the way F-35 is.

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Trump may seek some accommodation with Russia to reduce tensions, in much the same way that Reagan did during the later stages of his tenure. But Reagan never had any illusions about what motivated Moscow to negotiate, and so "peace through strength," wasn't just a slogan for him. He invested heavily in making America's military stronger. Early signs are that President Trump will follow the same path.

So it looks like a Reagan moment has arrived for America's military. The Trump era could mark a rebirth of American military investment and innovation, such as hasn't previously been seen since the dawn of the new millennium.