February 28, 2017

$54 Billion for What?



Sunday night, reports emerged that the Trump administration would soon announce a massive increase in defense spending. Monday morning, the president made the announcement that his administration would soon release a budget blueprint that included a $54 billion increase in defense spending—offset by cuts to the Department of State, foreign aid, and a variety of domestic discretionary program. President Trump referred to it as a “public safety and national security budget” in his remarks. But the statement gave little indication of what threat the additional $54 billion was necessary to counter.

The proposed increase in defense spending had been expected following a variety of campaign pledges and a presidential memorandum Trump signed shortly after his inauguration that called for a “great rebuilding” of the U.S. military. And while the actual numbers do not necessarily amount to a Reagan-esque military buildup, those pledges have always conflicted with statements then-candidate Trump had made about the need for the United States to reconsider its alliance commitments. As he told the Washington Post in March 2016, America should be willing to reconsider its role in NATO because “we certainly can’t afford to do this anymore.” And the administration has already started efforts to encourage its European allies to bear more of their own defense burden, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis issuing an ultimatum to NATO members earlier this month.

If U.S. allies spend more—or, should they fail to, and the Trump administration follows through on promises to rethink those commitments—then it is not entirely clear what the purpose of the additional money will be. The physical security of the United States is not at risk from traditional military threats as the country is surrounded by weak, friendly neighbors to the north and south, oceans to the east and west, and in possession of robust, retaliatory nuclear capability. The military force structure, for which American taxpayers foot the bill, largely exists to underpin the security of allies in key regions of the globe and to deter direct aggression against them. There are good reasons to do so, but much of President Trump’s rhetoric and worldview suggests he rejects those reasons.

During his remarks, President Trump suggested the money was about winning the wars America has been fighting in the Middle East for nearly two decades. According to the Los Angeles Times, Trump said, “We never win wars. We never win. And we don’t fight to win. We don’t fight to win.” He also criticized the cost of America’s post-September 11 wars, citing a report that claimed America had spent $6 trillion in those conflicts.

Yet, if victories in ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and against the Islamic State are the top priority, it is unclear why such a large increase in defense spending would be necessary to achieve them. American military technology is vastly superior to that of the Taliban and the Islamic State. Absent a large-scale increase in the number of military personnel in each country, and early reports of plans Secretary Mattis has developed for the president do not suggest such increases are likely, it is unclear what the additional funds would purchase in terms of those conflicts. Existing aircraft are certainly capable of prosecuting the air campaign against the Islamic State, given it has neither an air force of its own, nor sophisticated air defenses. New procurement programs would only really be necessary to back up America’s security guarantees, which Trump previously said were unaffordable.

Strategy is about prioritizing resources in light of threats to foreign policy goals. Given recent efforts by Defense Secretary Mattis to reassure American allies that Washington’s commitment to their defense remains intact, the additional $54 billion will go (at least in part) to that end. And perhaps for Mattis and others in the defense establishment, that is the reason for it.

For Donald Trump though, the reasons for a build-up seem less a matter of strategy and more a matter of national pride. As Bloomberg reported, Trump referred to the U.S. military as “our beloved military” in remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference last Friday. He added, “We will be substantially upgrading all of our military, all of our military, offensive, defensive, everything, bigger, and better and stronger than ever before.” Trump also added a “Jacksonian” flourish to this statement when he declared: “And hopefully, we’ll never have to use it, but nobody’s gonna mess with us, folks, nobody.” And while that latter bit might be seen as establishing a deterrent, it is incongruous with the president’s other words and actions.

As noted above, America is already relatively immune to conventional military threats. So unless he is serious about deterring threats against American allies—whom he has accused of being “obsolete” free riders—the idea that additional defense spending is necessary for deterrence seems like overkill. It also comes at the expense of complementary “soft power” measures in the form of diplomacy and foreign aid. But for someone who reports suggested thought his inauguration should include rocket launchers as part of a military parade, the forty-fifth president might be thinking about a military build-up in symbolic, rather than strategic, terms.

President Trump is supposed to offer more details on his plans in an address to Congress on Tuesday night. Perhaps then he will shed more light on the strategic rationale for his proposed military build-up.