I’m going to delve into the world of Pentagon budgets. It’s an arcane world, and I avoid it whenever possible, but it’s not possible to avoid it now — not if readers want to understand the magnitude of the challenge facing the Trump administration where the armed forces are concerned.
First, some history is necessary.
America’s armed forces have been declining in size, strength, and technological capability relative to its adversaries’ ever since the end of the Cold War.
The active duty military is around 40–50 percent smaller than it was in the 1980s. In 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, then–secretary of defense Dick Cheney and General Colin Powell proposed a plan for the Department of Defense going forward. That plan — called the Base Force — cut the size of the armed forces by about a quarter. When the Clinton administration came to power, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin did a “Bottom Up Review” of the military and adjusted the plan so it would cut the size of our forces by around another 10 percent.
Our forces today are smaller than those that resulted from the Bottom Up Review and much smaller than they would have been under the Base Force plan. To take one example, Secretary Cheney and General Powell thought the Navy would need 451 ships going forward, Secretary Aspin planned for 346 ships, and today there are only 280.
During all those years, the mantra was that the military could be smaller because the government would invest in its technological superiority. For the most part that investment didn’t happen. Many if not most major modernization programs were also canceled, either before any new systems had been procured at all or after only a fraction of the necessary upgrades had been bought.
As a result, all of the services are in desperate need of new systems and technology to replace their aging infrastructure. The Air Force today is flying older airframes — the fleet has an average age of 27 years — than at any time since its inception. The Army needs to replace its inventory of tracked vehicles, beginning with the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The Navy is slowly burning itself out, struggling to maintain an adequate forward presence overseas, yet lacking a fleet of sufficient size to support today’s deployment rate.
All of the services are in desperate need of new systems and technology to replace their aging infrastructure.
I can’t emphasize enough how much an aged inventory debilitates the armed forces. It drives up maintenance costs, it eats up a budget that is already too small, and it’s a constant threat to readiness. Imagine having to maintain and rely on a 30-year-old car.
The Pentagon faces two other huge holes in its budget. First, the Air Force must replace its aging and vulnerable satellite system, on which both the armed forces and the civilian economy are completely dependent. That will be a huge expense that is currently unbudgeted. Second, as President Trump has noted, both the land- and sea-based legs of the nuclear triad must be modernized or replaced, another expensive undertaking that is currently unfunded.
While our forces were declining over the past few decades, their missions were increasing dramatically. Operational tempo, the rate at which forces are deployed, increased substantially even in the low-threat environment of the 1990s. Since then, North Korea has gone nuclear, Iran is in danger of doing so, we are fighting Islamic terrorist groups in about a dozen countries, Russia is rearming and has invaded two of its neighbors, and, most ominously, the Chinese have engaged in a 20-year buildup of forces that made them the dominant naval power in the Western Pacific and at least a regional peer competitor of the United States.
All of these events have imposed substantial new obligations on forces that are smaller and less capable, relative to our potential adversaries’, than they were 20 years ago. And of course, the United States has in the last 15 years fought two long and difficult land wars. Those conflicts imposed tremendous stress, with all its attendant costs and consequences.
To sum up, even before the defense sequester, there was a growing mismatch between American strategy and American resources. I remember having private conversations with members of the Joint Chiefs who believed the modernization shortfall alone was $20 billion dollars per service. But nobody in the last three administrations admitted it publicly, because nobody, then or now, could figure out how to pare down our strategic requirements without abandoning our vital interests, and because neither Democrats nor Republicans wanted to spend the money to enable the armed forces to perform the full range of their missions.
It’s still hard to believe that so many well-meaning people could have done something so destructive for so long. But that’s what happened.
In 2011, Secretary Bob Gates took a step toward confronting the problem. Having spent two years cutting modernization programs, Gates got permission to propose a ten-year budget for rebuilding the armed forces. That plan called for modest yearly increases in the defense topline — not enough even to offset inflation, and nowhere near enough to recapitalize our forces, but the best Gates could get out of the Obama administration all the same.
Within six months of Gates’s proposal, Congress passed and Obama signed the Budget Control Act and conditional sequester of 2011, which arbitrarily reduced the Gates budgets by about $100 billion per year beginning in 2013.
In the five years the sequester has been in effect, the Department has lost $484 billion dollars compared to Gates’s budget plan. The table below shows the loss through fiscal year 2017, the latest year for which figures were available as I was writing this:
(All figures in millions of dollars)
The sequester dramatically worsened all the long-term challenges the Pentagon was facing and in addition created an enormous present-day readiness problem. Each of the services is now facing major shortfalls in money for training, maintenance, and munitions. Everyone knew the sequester would have that effect; Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned of its disastrous consequences. But it passed anyway, and has continued in effect ever since.
I retired from military service three months after sequestration took effect. Four years later, I returned to the Department and I have been shocked by what I’ve seen with our readiness to fight. For all the heartache caused by the loss of our troops during these wars, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of our military than sequestration.
Now, apart from the members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, who have fought the sequester from its inception, the only current elected office-holder who bears no responsibility for this sorry state of affairs is Donald Trump. While both parties and both of the political branches were undermining American security for the better part of 20 years, Mr. Trump was building commercial real estate and starring on reality TV.
The president campaigned on rebuilding the military, and I believe he is sincere in wanting to do so. Secretary Mattis will submit a budget for fiscal year 2019 asking for $716 billion. At least $60 billion of that money is intended to fund current combat activities and will largely not be available to increase force size, improve readiness, or recapitalize the services for the future.
So the administration’s baseline request for fiscal year 2019 will be somewhere around $650 billion dollars; the budget deal lifts the sequester caps by that amount so it can actually be appropriated. That is a major victory — it represents nearly a $100 billion increase in defense funding over two years — but it will still be well below the $673 billion Secretary Gates projected would be necessary in fiscal year 2019.
(Remember that the Gates budget was inadequate at the time, that he proposed it before the sequester caused so much additional damage, and that the world has gotten a lot more dangerous since 2011.)
I don’t fault the Trump administration for not requesting more in fiscal year 2019. Secretary Mattis has only recently had most of his team appointed, confirmed, and installed in the Pentagon. The administration had to develop its National Security Strategy and National Defense strategy before it could build a budget to match, and that took time as well.
Moreover, the defense-industrial base is so fragile — another result of years of underfunding — that the Pentagon isn’t immediately capable of spending all it needs to spend anyway. And Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan has promised that the fiscal year 2020 budget will be a “masterpiece,” which means, one hopes, that the department will for the first time in years actually be allowed to budget for what it really needs rather than having to stick to numbers set arbitrarily by the Congress or OMB.
Only the department has the analytical resources to determine with any precision what the budget should be in the out years. But there is little doubt that another large increase in fiscal year 2020 will be necessary. As an example, Mackenzie Eaglen of AEI has estimated that the baseline budget for that year should be $705 billion, which would mean a total increase of defense funding, over three years, of more than $150 billion dollars.
That’s a lot of money; I can envision readers of this column sucking in their breath. But it’s only slightly above Gates’s projections for fiscal year 2020, it’s significantly less than 1 percent of America’s GDP, and it’s only necessary because the government has been so busy for so many years digging the department into such a deep hole.
Personally, I feel caught between the need to build up right away and the importance of doing it right. The Trump administration feels the same tension, and it deserves the benefit of the doubt as it decides how quickly to tackle the monumental challenge it faces. But it is essential that neither Mattis, nor Shanahan, nor the president himself underestimates or understates the magnitude of the damage they are trying to undo.
The Trump administration cannot allow Congress to believe that the fiscal year 2019 budget will be the last major increase it will request. As I have written time and again, the sequester did not actually save money when it was imposed; it simply postponed and enlarged the bill that had to paid. That bill has now come due. If the administration lowballs the real cost — if they allow Congress to appropriate less than is really needed — they risk becoming responsible for a state of affairs they did not cause, and complicit in the terrible consequences that may well overtake our country, no matter what they do now, at the eleventh hour after so many years of neglect.