The Corner

A Proposal for Donald Trump: The National Defense

I thought of a suggestion for Donald Trump late last week, when I logged on to NRO for the latest analysis about the Islamic terrorist attack in Nice. 

On the NRO web page that night were the following headlines:

  1. BREAKING:  Terror in France:  73 Dead in Truck Rampage in Nice
  2. Enemies See America as Vulnerable Prey (Victor Hanson)
  3. On Syria, Turkey Bows to Putin’s Will (Tom Rogan)
  4. Is War Coming to the South China Sea (Arthur Herman)
  5. One Year of Obama Failures on Iran (Marco Rubio)
  6. Iran Tries Again  (Ted Cruz) and
  7. Deploying Troops to Eastern Europe, NATO Sends Russia the Right Message (Charles Krauthammer)

Taken as a whole, the pieces describe what anyone can plainly see: a world spinning off the rails, where America’s homeland is vulnerable, where aggressors have the initiative and the Obama Administration is reacting too late with too little — where it reacts at all.

The only piece mildly hopeful was Dr. Krauthammer’s, which applauds NATO’s decision to send four battalions of troops to Eastern Europe as a deterrent signal to Russia. A new American brigade is also scheduled to be rotated through Eastern Europe.   

I agree with Dr. Krauthammer that this is a good move, but as he noted in his column, we should be realistic about the size of it.  Four battalions (battalions, not brigades) is about 4000 men, and the troops, like the American brigade, will be rotated through, not based in, Europe. 

A recent Rand Corporation study ran a number of war games studying the probable outcome of a Russian invasion of the Baltic States; the study found that “across multiple games using a wide range of expert participants in and out of uniform playing both sides, the longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of the Estonian and/or Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga, respectively, is 60 hours.”

So currently Russia could overwhelm two NATO members in less than three days. According to the Rand study, it would take seven additional brigades, supported by airpower and ground enablers, to defend the Baltics and therefore deter the Russians.

The problem is that the United States doesn’t have the additional brigades to send to Europe. Currently the active duty Army has 32 brigades; the Pentagon admits that the number, under current budgets, is going down to 30, though actually 25 is more likely. 

The troops we have are already fully engaged in Korea, the Western Pacific, Afghanistan, parts of the Middle East and Africa, as well as Europe. That’s why this new step is so small and has been delayed for so long, and would have been small and delayed even if the Obama Administration had a more vigorous policy of deterring Russia.

So the United States, a nation of 320 million people with the strongest economy in the world and the most professional military in history, is running a heightened risk of the collapse of its flagship Alliance and the possibility of war in Europe for want of seven brigades, or about 25-35,000 men.

And I’ve only discussed Europe and Russia so far.  The Chinese are aggressive too, stronger than Russia and getting stronger every year; North Korea, with its nuclear arsenal, is less stable than at any time since the Korean conflict; Iran is growing in strength and aggressiveness; the various Islamic terrorist organizations are spreading and growing in strength as well; the Afghan mission is at heightened risk of failure without more troops and a longer presence.

When the next President takes office, he or she will find that every theater is undermanned, every service has severe readiness shortfalls, and none of the services can fully fund even their most important modernization programs under the current budget baseline.  

In what universe does this make sense? Why, when America is so vulnerable, is the Department of Defense operating with budgets that are almost a trillion dollars less than Bob Gates recommended five years ago, under a baseline that was pulled out of thin air as part of a political compromise in 2011 and that the leaders of both Parties denounced at the time and have denounced ever since?

When I talk about this issue with members of Congress, they tell me that they’d like to help the armed forces but can’t find the money. That’s an excuse, not a reason. Our leaders “found” $700 billion when it was necessary to bail out the banks in 2008.  They “found” $787 billion when President Obama wanted it for his stimulus package in 2009. 

They can’t “find” money now for the armed forces because they don’t want to – because it isn’t as high a priority as the banks, public buildings, green energy companies,  and government grant writers to whom Washington gave over a trillion dollars during Obama’s first term.

As I write this, the Republicans are preparing to meet in Cleveland. Donald Trump is still searching for an issue that sums up his approach to foreign policy. The national defense is that issue. Mr. Trump should announce that in his first two years as President he will push through Congress two double digit increases in the defense budget – just as Reagan did — and that he will sustain those budgets against inflation the rest of his term – just as Reagan did.   

The need for such a program has been fully documented, and on a bipartisan basis. The program would empower the Department of Defense to increase the size of the Army and provide our soldiers with new fighting vehicles and better anti-tank weapons, increase the number of naval vessels, recapitalize the Air Force with a new bomber and fifth generation fighters, restore full amphibious capability to the Marines, modernize the strategic arsenal, and replace the aging space architecture.

Mr. Trump wants also to reform the way that the Pentagon operates. That effort would go hand in hand with the higher budget; much can be saved by reforming the Department’s acquisition and personnel policies, and those savings could be used, along with the higher baseline, to sustain the Trump defense program in the out years.

Nothing a President Trump could do would more quickly or decisively restore American credibility in all parts of the world. Without firing a shot, Trump would show the Russians and Chinese and Iranians that the gravy train was over, and that it was time for them to reconsider the aggressive postures that are increasing the risk of armed conflict. Strengthening the national defense would strengthen Mr. Trump’s hand in negotiations with those powers; in fact, it is the only way Trump can ensure that he negotiates from a position of strength. 

The program would also fit perfectly Mr. Trump’s impulses on domestic policy. Higher budgets for the armed forces would restore the defense industrial base (replacing many of the jobs Trump believes have been lost through trade), reinvigorate American innovation (DoD programs always produce many technological spin-offs), and over time create or sustain millions of jobs – not hedge fund jobs in Boston or internet jobs in San Francisco, but high paying manufacturing jobs for Americans working in shipyards, on fighter lines, and in hundreds of defense subcontracting firms located all over the United States. 

Mr. Trump wants America’s allies to contribute more to collective security. Fine. This program would give them modern defense platforms they will want to buy, so that when Trump gets them to raise their defense budgets, they spend some of that money in the American economy and not with the French or the Germans.

Finally, a strong defense platform would give Trump the perfect contrast with Hillary Clinton.  Clinton was Secretary of State while President Obama was weakening America by his words and actions; that weakness led to the rising tide of conflict that is forcing the Administration now to redeploy troops all over the world, some of them in combat missions.  By strengthening America’s deterrent power, Trump can make it possible – just as it was possible for Reagan – to prevent conflict, at least against the nation state aggressors, and protect America’s homeland and national rights without having to go to war.

Mr. Trump’s favorite President was Teddy Roosevelt.  Teddy would have eagerly sponsored a pro-defense policy now, to protect America while reducing the risk of war.  In fact, Roosevelt did embrace such a policy; he is famous for having built the Navy into a global force, and famous for saying that America should “walk softly, and carry a big stick.”  That was the right policy for the United States, then and now, and Teddy summed it up in seven words. 

For the Trump Twitter feed, that’s 35 characters. 

If Mr. Trump has the boldness to embrace such a program, he can show in substance what he has so often promised in words:  that his Administration will make America great once again, by making it once again strong.

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.


The Latest