Politicians of both parties frequently laud the prowess of America's warfighters. However, the reality is that the U.S. military has been gradually losing its edge over other countries in training and technology for many years.
The Air Force's fleet is the oldest it has ever been. The Navy is at least 80 warships short of what it needs to meet overseas responsibilities. The Army's vice chief of staff says his service is "outranged, outgunned and outdated;" he warns of sending "under-trained and poorly equipped soldiers into harm's way."
Donald Trump recognized the military's decay, and made reversing it a central focus of his presidential campaign. But barely 100 days into his administration, it is already clear he will not be able to halt the erosion. Although there are some bright spots such as the debut of the F-35 fighter, the military will continue losing ground.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis has repeatedly told Congress the president's proposed spending increase for the military isn't enough to restore lost capabilities. What Mattis himself may not grasp is that even the modest rise the White House has proposed -- 3% above what President Obama would have sought for next year -- isn't going to happen.
Here are the top five reasons why rebuilding America's military is shaping up to be a campaign promise not kept during the Trump era.
Decay has been spreading for two decades. The military's decline didn't begin during the Obama years. It started when defense secretary Dick Cheney decided a quarter-century ago that the Soviet Union's collapse warranted killing a hundred major weapons programs. President Clinton was more than willing to accept this "peace dividend," because it enabled him to balance the budget. His successor, George W. Bush, took office thinking the world was in a "strategic pause," and therefore called for skipping a generation of weapons while the military transformed itself for the digital age.
After the 9-11 attacks occurred, military transformation and investment in cutting-edge technology withered. The terrorists didn't have air forces or navies, so the Pentagon's aging arsenal was adequate to defeat them. President Obama added his own round of weapons cuts in 2009, and then became embroiled in a fiscal standoff with Republicans that resulted in a law capping military spending for ten years. That law is still in effect, and it has crippled military investment plans. President Trump isn't likely to reverse 20 years of decay in two terms.
The White House can't deliver spending increases. The White House has proposed increasing the military budget $54 billion above the legislated spending caps for 2018. However, that is illegal unless both chambers of Congress vote to repeal the law imposing the caps. Any such legislative change requires a "super majority" of 60 votes in the Senate. Since there are only 52 Republicans in the upper chamber, at least eight Democrats have to go along.
Democrats have said all along they wanted "parity" for defense and domestic spending -- if defense goes up, domestic must too. But what the White House budget office has proposed instead is that the $54 billion in defense increases be funded by cutting domestic programs a corresponding amount. No Democrat will support that tradeoff, and thus the spending caps will likely remain in place. The military may get a little more money from supplemental warfighting accounts -- which aren't covered by the caps -- but it isn't getting the increase Trump promised.
Trump has other priorities. Candidate Trump didn't just promise to rebuild America's military. He also pledged to reform the healthcare system; cut taxes for corporations and the middle class; restore the nation's crumbling infrastructure; and contain the deficit. This is arithmetically impossible. The Congressional Budget Office was already projecting a deficit of $540 billion for 2018 before he was elected, and according to the conservative Tax Foundation, Trump's tax cuts alone could add $260 billion or more to each year's deficit.
So even if Congress could overcome its partisan paralysis to repeal current spending caps, the fiscal fallout from the president's plans will be unpalatable to both parties. Many GOP legislators are warning that the nation's accumulated debt of $20 trillion will cause budget calculations to go haywire if interest rates for servicing the debt return to historic averages, and Trump's plans would increase the debt by roughly $3 billion per day during his tenure. Raising military outlays against this fiscal backdrop would require a mighty big threat.
Neither party is truly pro-military. Although members of Congress invariably support military spending in their home districts or states, support for spending levels that match the nation's global strategy is hard to find outside the authorizing committees. There isn't a true military expert in the leadership of either party in either chamber, and only one in five legislators has actually served in the armed forces (compared to three in five a generation ago). So to put it bluntly, many of the members don't know much about warfighting.
What they do know is that they will probably not be reelected if they try to trim entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, which are the real drivers of deficits (military spending claims only one in seven federal dollars). GOP members are not willing to raise taxes in order to meet military needs, and as I have already noted, Democrats are not willing to cut domestic outlays for the military's sake. Thus, while members on both sides of the aisle are eager to voice support for our warfighters, the support wanes when sacrifices are required.
Threats have become diverse and confusing. The United States sustained an unusually robust level of peacetime military spending for 40 years during the Cold War, because the threat was unambiguous. At one point, the Soviet Union had 10,000 nuclear weapons aimed at America, and Moscow's rhetoric was often bellicose. So support for military preparedness was widespread on Capitol Hill and in the political culture.
It isn't like that anymore. Many of the nation's recent overseas interventions have not gone well, and there is a lack of clarity about which dangers should be of greatest concern. Some legislators think that fiscal insolvency or climate change are a bigger danger than military attack. Even among those who grasp the profound dangers of modern warfare, there is doubt as to whether nuclear war or cyber attacks or global terrorism should be the greatest concern. So building political consensus behind a coherent military posture is difficult.
The bottom line here is that Pentagon planners should probably be preparing for a level of funding next year that does not exceed the $524 billion permitted by current law. To paraphrase the late Les Aspin, it's not that our leaders can't provide the military with more money or shouldn't, just that they probably won't. Which means the long decay of the U.S. military, which began amidst the ashes of the Soviet empire, is likely to persist until something really horrible happens to focus the minds of Americans on the consequences of being unprepared.