Since about 1968, the middle of the Vietnam War, one of the defining characteristics of the Democratic Party has been its opposition to defense spending. Throughout the Obama years, his administration mandated a slash-and-burn approach to defense spending that caused purchases of new weapon systems to be greatly reduced (or cancelled) and forced combat readiness of aging weapons to new lows.
President Trump’s successes so far haven’t cured the Democrats’ allergy to investments in national security, but it did cause them to shift temporarily from their ideological opposition to defense generally to an obsessive opposition to border security, especially Mr. Trump’s proposed border wall.
Both minority leaders, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, surprisingly supported Mr. Trump’s increased defense spending for fiscal 2019, though many of their members didn’t.
About 10 days ago, Mr. Trump caught both the Pentagon and the Democrats off guard by announcing the fiscal 2020 defense budget would be no more than $700 billion, an overall reduction of $16 billion from FY 2019 and $33 billion less than Pentagon planners expected.
Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said that the cut was not just a one-year drop, but would be reflected in flattening budgets over the next few years.
That announcement will have two inevitable effects. First, the Pentagon will have to determine what should be cut from the FY 2020 budget they’d been planning. Second, if the Democrats win either house of congress on Election Day, they will return quickly to slashing defense spending and also be able to prevent any improvement in border security.
The Pentagon’s budget isn’t sacrosanct. But cutting it back from $733 billion to $700 billion will be very difficult because the Pentagon is playing catch-up from the mess made by Mr. Obama and his team.
The worst example was the sequestration of defense spending imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act. Defense spending was cut across the board and in disregard of what can be cut without decreasing our defense capabilities.
As this column has pointed out, force readiness has reached a critical stage. When the 2019 Pentagon authorization was passed, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican, put the spending increase in perspective. He said, ” we have cut too much in the last eight years and we have to make up for some of that ground that’s been lost As big as this year’s defense budget looks, it’s not enough to fix the problems. But it is enough to start to turn the corner to fix the problems.”
Mr. Thornberry was precisely right. After 17 years of war — and the eight Obama years of spending cuts — the increase in 2019 wasn’t nearly enough to repair and replace the ships, aircraft, missiles and other assets worn out by over-use and age.
Take the most obvious example. On Oct. 9, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordered that 80 percent of all fighter aircraft had to be combat-ready by Oct. 1, 2019. At this point, only about one-third of Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18s are fully mission capable. The Air Force is not doing much better. The F-16C fleet, according to FY 2017 Air Force data, only achieved a mission-capable rate of 70 percent, the F-35A fleet was at 55 percent mission capability and the F-22s were at the rate of only 49 percent mission-capable.
And that assumes there are enough aircraft of the right kind to perform a mission. About a dozen F-22s were destroyed by Hurricane Michael.
To reach Mr. Mattis’ 80 percent combat-readiness level would, by itself, require more money than the FY 2019 defense spending increase. We may have started, as Mr. Thornberry said, to turn the corner to fix the problems. But now we’re throwing that chance away.
There are too many other examples of weapon systems that need to be created, modernized or repaired to meet evolving threats. For example, China and Russia are spending billions to develop hypersonic weapons, missiles that can reach any spot on the globe faster than anything other than a ballistic missile. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a major speech in March, bragged about new Russian hypersonic weapons that, he said, could not be defended against.
Deputy Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, understanding that all three services wanted to develop hypersonic weapons, said that these were among the programs most likely to suffer from delays from the cuts. And hypersonics aren’t the most urgent need.
As this column said a few weeks ago, we are spending about $1.2 trillion on weapon systems that the Government Accountability Office found were vulnerable to cyber attack. The urgent and essential fixes to that problem will, alone, cost tens of billions of dollars.
The president and Mr. Mattis need to take a step back. Cutting defense spending is fine if it’s done right. To do it right requires that the cuts be directed with precision. Mission requirements should drive budgets, not the other way around.
If the Democrats win this election they will eagerly revert to their old habits, slashing defense spending with further cuts based on politics, not mission requirements. And there will be no border wall. That’s something to remember when we vote.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”