The $54 billion defense spending increase the White House has proposed is a sign that President Trump intends to keep his promise to rebuild the military. Yet simply increasing the defense budget will not be enough. The president must fundamentally reshape the way Washington approaches defense spending if he hopes to be successful.
Our defense budget is a sieve for congressional pet projects, special interest contracts, and social engineering programs. Pumping more fuel into the tank is little use if you don’t patch the holes in the bottom first.
The Military Wastes Millions, If Not Billions, Every Year
Trump’s public negotiation with Lockheed Martin over the runaway cost of the F-35 contract was a good first step, but the fighter program is only the most visible symptom of a common problem. In 2013, for example, when defense spending was cut by $31 billion due to sequestration, Freedom Caucus member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) inserted a provision into the National Defense Authorization Act requiring the Army to spend hundreds of millions of dollars bulking up its Abrams tank fleet.
Sounds like a rare win for the Pentagon, right? Except for one minor detail: the Army already had more tanks than it could possibly use (a surplus of 2,000 Abrams were parked unused in the California desert), it had no strategic use for new ones, and it was actually in the process of reducing its tank corps to adapt to the operational needs of asymmetric warfare in Afghanistan. Then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Ordierno remarked to the Associated Press, “if we had our choice, we would use that money a different way.” Odierno later added, “When we are talking about tight budgets, a couple of hundred million dollars is a lot of money.”
No kidding. The same year Congress forced millions of dollars worth of unwanted tanks on the Army, my unit was prohibited from training on our Stryker vehicles for several months because we lacked funds to repair them if they broke down. I knew at least one commander who used his own money to buy batteries in bulk from Sam’s Club because his unit’s ability to order through the Army supply system was frozen. We deployed to Afghanistan the following year.
So why would Congress ignore Ordierno and other generals’ pleas and force a wartime Army to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on maneuver units that provided no strategic value? Well, because Abrams makes its tanks in Lima, Ohio, and Lima voters are part of Jordan’s Fourth Congressional District.
In 2015, Jordan touted yet another increase in tank spending for his voters in an op-ed in the Lima News, calling it “one bright spot in the appropriations bill.” In case you’re wondering, the Abrams extravaganza continues unabated despite the Pentagon’s objections — last year Congress gifted the Army with another $40 million worth of tanks, citing the need for “industrial base support.”
Pork Projects Undermine Military Effectiveness
Jordan’s actions are hardly unique. Pet projects have become the defense equivalent of mandatory entitlement spending, while money for training is treated as discretionary spending. Despite several years of sequestration, funding for Capitol Hill’s favorite projects remained essentially unchanged, but readiness spending — money allocated for equipment repairs and training resources (ammunition, fuel, MREs, etc.) — was cut by 30 percent.
The end result: the military ends up with a lot of money for programs and equipment it doesn’t want, and inadequate funding for training and equipping the 19- and 20-year olds we send off to battle. That, in a nutshell, is how the world’s most powerful nation has a $573 billion defense budget, larger than the budgets of the next seven countries combined, but only three out of 58 brigade combat teams presently ready for war.
If you want to rebuild the military, restore its helicopters and fighter planes to mission-capable status and allow it to train. In fiscal year 2015, thirty-six of the Army’s then 60 brigade combat teams did not have funding to train “above the squad level.”
This means roughly 60 percent of Army platoons — the lowest-level unit conducting independent maneuvers on the battlefield — never trained together as whole platoons. Thirty-six brigades worth of soldiers, more than a hundred thousand, were part of units that never trained on tasks involving more than eight or nine soldiers at one time. That is what a “readiness crisis” looks like at the ground level. That is not an Army that is prepared for a full-blown war.
What President Trump Can Do About the Defense Budget
Congress may have the power of the purse, and it can include whichever line items it chooses in the defense budget, but the president has a 140-character bully pulpit, a pen, and an extraordinary opportunity to refocus defense spending on mission success. He can demand procurement reform to give the chiefs of staff greater autonomy in the acquisition process. He can also refer the crop of pet-project requests to defense experts (of which there are plenty in his administration) for review.
If Secretary Mattis and the Pentagon strategists under his command think certain spending requests will not help the military achieve its mission, the president should threaten a veto, name and shame the offending provisions, and publicly demand changes. If Congress is unhappy with that, it can assert its newfound independence and try to override the veto. In the process, it can explain to the American people why the troops desperately need DoD-funded research on babies’ interactions with robots once the president’s Twitter account has turned their line items into the nightly news cycle.
Many conservatives rightly complained during the Obama era that the mission was too sacred and service members risk too much to be subordinated to social engineering projects. It is equally true, however, that the mission is too sacred and service members risk too much to be subordinated to the idiosyncratic needs of 435 local industries. To rebuild a mission-capable military, we must remember what its mission is in the first place.
Jordan told a conservative publication last November that “the takeaway from last week’s election is that the American people are tired of business as usual in Washington. That means come January, no earmarks or other special deals for special interests.” Great. Let’s start with the Abrams.