There is excitement at the Pentagon over President Trump’s pledge to undertake a buildup of the country’s military. Support for the new president’s defense agenda is also found among many on Capitol Hill, with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain proposing to add roughly $430 billion to the defense budget over the next five years.
A strong case can be made for enhancing the country’s defenses. Much of the defense spending increases following 9/11 focused on operations against radical Islamist terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. Relatively little was spent on new equipment, while a substantial slice of the increase went to recruit and retain troops needed to undertake large-scale, seemingly open-ended operations.
Several new weapon systems were cancelled. To protect soldiers in the field, however, over $40 billion alone was spent on heavily armored troop transports, for which the Pentagon now has little use. The result was a “hollow buildup,” with little in the way of new equipment heading to the field, while combat vehicles, planes and ships in the force continued aging, often at an accelerated rate due to the pace of combat operations.
In addition to contending with rapidly rising personnel costs and the consequences of the “hollow buildup,” America’s armed forces now face a far more formidable array of threats than during the decade or so following 9/11. Three revisionist powers seek to overturn the rules-based international order in regions long considered vital to U.S. security by presidents of both political parties. China, Iran and Russia are all engaged in acts of intimidation, coercion and even low-level aggression against American allies and security partners. Simply put, the military confronts rapidly growing threats with relatively fewer resources.
This presents Mr. Trump with a strategic choice: boost the military’s ability to preserve a stable balance of power in the Western Pacific, Europe and the Middle East, or encourage further aggressive behavior from the revisionist powers.
Unfortunately, like the Red Queen’s Race in Alice in Wonderland, the Pentagon will have to run hard just to stay in place. According to outgoing Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, the Obama administration’s Defense Department’s program is short an average of $88 billion a year over the next five years. So even if Mr. McCain’s budget increase becomes reality, the Pentagon may not be able to execute its existing plans, let alone undertake significant upgrades to its capabilities.
But the problems don’t end here.
The Obama administration has left behind two fiscal time bombs. One involves interest payments on the country’s rapidly growing debt. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), these payments are projected to increase from $233 billion in 2015 to over $800 billion by the mid-2020s. The second involves spending on entitlements, which CBO projects will nearly double, from over $2.3 trillion a year in 2015 to $4.1 trillion by 2026. If, as projected, the Social Security and Medicare trust funds are depleted in the early 2030s, additional revenues will need to be provided to avoid substantial benefit reductions.
If this plays out, these components of the federal government’s budget pie will account for 83 percent of the total increase in spending over the coming decade. As entitlements and debt consume an ever-greater part of the budget pie, defense spending and spending on domestic priorities (such as education, the environment and transportation) will be progressively squeezed.
Fortunately, this outcome is not cast in stone. A significant increase in taxes could help remedy the situation, as could spending cuts and entitlement reforms. But these tough choices were not addressed during the campaign. In fact, the American people were promised tax cuts for the middle class and that Social Security benefits would remain unchanged.
Something will have to give.
While Mr. Trump rightly notes that America’s allies and partners can — and should — do more to defend against growing threats in their part of the world, they will need more U.S. leadership and muscle, not less. But undertaking a boost in defense spending while the country’s fiscal pillars continue to erode will only kick the fiscal can down the road, risking the country’s long-term defenses in the process.
Mr. Trump pledged to make America great again. Doing so entails restoring the country’s economic foundation. This will require his leadership in convincing the American people of the need for near-term sacrifice. Toward this end, he can benefit from the advice of President Eisenhower, who declared, “our system must remain solvent, as we attempt a solution of this great problem of security. Else we have lost the battle from within that we are trying to win from without.”
• Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., Ph.D., is a distinguished senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.