A bipartisan commission has determined that President Trump’s recent record defense bill is insufficiently massive to keep America safe, and we should spend more, while cutting “entitlements.”
The National Defense Strategy Commission concluded the Department of Defense was too focused on “efficiency” and needed to accept “greater cost and risk” to search for “leap-ahead technologies” to help the U.S. maintain superiority.
The panel added that Defense is “not where most of the money is.” It said Congress should be focused on “domestic entitlement programs” and “interest payments on the national debt” as sources of savings.
The report even contains a graph that shows defense spending crawling sadly along the floor of the spending X-axis as mighty mandatory “entitlements” soar to great heights.
This is the same Department of Defense with a serious existing accounting problem. In 2016, before Trump was elected, its Inspector General said he could not properly track $6.5 trillion in defense spending. A later academic study claimed the number was $21 trillion, looking at the years 1998-2015.
Trump originally asked for over $730 billion in defense spending for Fiscal Year 2019, and last spring a budget setting spending at $716 billion passed 85-10 in the Senate. This would have meant an $82 billion spending hike, an increase that by itself was larger than the entire defense budget of every country on earth, save China.
Trump later called for an across-the-board budget cut of 5 percent, leaving the amount of the defense budget in confusion. He still claims he wants $700 billion. Whatever the final amount turns out to be, it will be massive — about 10 times the size of Russia’s defense budget, and four times the size of China’s.
The National Defense Strategy Commission was created as part of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. It’s section 942 in this bill, and it requires that the majority and minority committee chiefs for Armed Services in both the House and the Senate to each name three people to the panel.
Eric Edelman, who was the senior policy official in the Defense Department from 2005-2009, chairs the panel. The co-chair, appointed by Democrat Adam Smith of Washington, is Admiral Gary Roughead, who was named chief of Naval operations in 2007 and now sits on the board of Northrup Grumman.
Other members include Dr. Andrew Krepinevich, who heads a defense consulting firm called Solarium and once authored a Foreign Policy article called How To Win in Iraq that called for a “protracted commitment of U.S. resources” in the Middle East (this was a precursor to the “surge” concept). Former acting head of the CIA Michael Morell is one of the Democratic appointees.
To recap: While spending record sums on a defense bill, Congress allocated still more money to a panel of current and former defense specialists whose purpose seems to have been to write a report asking for more money.
We regularly hear that our weapons systems are old, outdated and placing troops in harm’s way. It’s an ancient political device and it usually works.
Ronald Reagan was a master at this. In 1983, Reagan was giving speeches about how our last new nuclear missile system, the Minuteman, had been designed in 1969. Meanwhile, the Soviets since then had built five new classes and “upgraded five times.”
This appeal to national consumerist shame — we can’t be seen in public driving something old! — is effective. On a policy level, such appeals are usually couched in terms of needing to make American “hard power” a more “credible” foreign policy tool.
Any sober assessment of the challenges faced by the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union would have stressed human intelligence and data security at the expense of World War II-style arsenals designed to fight conventional wars. Aircraft carriers aren’t much help against terrorism or cyber-attacks.
But the companies that build ships and subs and fighter jets have huge lobbies in D.C., and the congressional pork system significantly revolves around defense allocations.
So instead of looking honestly at where we do and do not need to spend, the military mostly looks at existing weapons systems — even ones that work pretty well — and focuses on how long it’s been since we unveiled jazzy re-designs. That allows the endless cycle of patronage and political contributions to stay in place.
This is why we continue to spend on projects like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, an infamous boondoggle that projects to cost over a trillion dollars over the life of the program. Even our president could see through it, once. Shortly after his election, Trump blasted the F-35 program as “out of control” and promised to save “billions” on it.
Then Trump met with Lockheed Martin chief executive Marilyn Hewson, and the president appeared to warm to the F-35. Among other things, he seems to believe “stealth” means the plane is literally invisible:
TRUMP: We buy billions and billions dollars worth of that beautiful F-35. It’s stealth, you cannot see it. Is that correct?
HEWSON: That’s correct, Mr. President.
Before long, Trump was speaking of the weapon in almost erotic, Conan The Barbarian-esque tones:
Now when our enemies hear the F-35’s engines, when they’re roaring overhead, their souls will tremble and they will know the day of reckoning has arrived.
Politicians inevitably fall in love with weapons and weapons-makers. They tend to have less interaction with the people we’re blowing up overseas, or with those who just want us to spend relatively more on schools and medicine. The Pentagon has a powerful lobby; the anti-Pentagon, not so much.
Along with jet fighters, the U.S. is spending a fortune trying to upgrade its aircraft carrier fleet. Trump is adding ships like the unfortunately named U.S.S. Gerald Ford.
According to the Project on Government Oversight, the Ford now projects to cost $12.9 billion, or about 25 percent above original estimates. Moreover, because it is replacing the proven technology of “steam catapults” with a new, glitchy “digital catapult,” it may take a while before the Ford class even matches the capability of the existing Nimitz carriers.
Which means we may find out just minutes into the next conventional war — if, God forbid, we ever have one — that we spent billions making obsolete forms of weaponry pillars of our defense strategy. But sure, free college tuition is a fairy tale.
Some other questions to consider: What has been the return on the trillions of dollars we’ve spent on wars around the globe since 9/11? Were those 480,000 deaths worth it? Why are we spending buckets of cash on questionable new weapons systems while leaving the VA system in disrepair?
Instead of any of these more sensible questions, which tend to come from academia or activist groups, the headlines in the larger press tend to focus on Reagan-esque themes of loss and decay.
The Hill’s headline about the report: “Defense strategy report warns of grave erosion in U.S. Military Superiority.” The Washington Post: “U.S. Military has eroded to ‘a dangerous degree,’ study for congress finds.’”
CNN was starker: “Experts warn U.S. at risk of losing war with China or Russia.”
The Pentagon doesn’t just spend money; it spends a lot of money asking for more money. And it has many friends in politics and the media to help them along. Its people may not be great at preparing for the next war, but, they know how to keep their budgets high, and they’re at it again.