America's Military: Overcommitted and Underfunded
The administration wants to expand the armed forces’ commitments, even while contracting spending.
I confess up front to being a budget hawk. I basically believe that as long as the Pentagon is still buying two manned fighter planes after the unmanned revolution, there is more than enough money going to the Defense Department—because if money were really tight, one or both of those programs would be cancelled, and the military services would be undercutting each other's budgets to increase the funding available for their priorities. As long as adaptation to obvious next-generation platforms (like unmanned aerial fighters) remains this slow and the services placidly accept their budget shares, the topline is adequate.
But even I am now nervous about the widening gap between America’s military obligations and the resourcing we are committing. What’s worsening the situation is that the Trump administration is both expanding requirements and contracting spending.
Since taking office, President Trump and his defense secretary have approved an increase in both forces and operational tempo in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria; committed to an enduring presence in Iraq after the defeat of ISIS; are considering an imminent increase of at least 4,000 troops to Afghanistan as part of the advise and assist mission to Afghan National Security Forces; are reviewing an Afghan war strategy that could make weightier demands of long duration to that country; have increased the military assets assigned to deter and if necessary engage North Korea; are providing greater intelligence and special-operations support to allied operations in Yemen; and are pushing back assertively on Iranian naval activity. Those are non-trivial expansions of demand to place on an already over-stretched force.
Chief of Staff of the Army, General Mark Milley, assesses current requirements at 540,000 active-duty soldiers, which appears to be the Army’s favorite round number: It was also what the Army believed it needed in the mid-1990s, and what the Army believed it needed mid-term of the Obama administration. So it’s likely an institutionally comfortable number rather than a rigorously derived one.
Still, the 540,000 number cannot reasonably meet the very different demands of those three time frames. Planners at the end of the Cold War envisioned a strategic environment that entailed Russia integrating into the West, did not imagine the emergence of global terrorist threats, and under-emphasized the rise of an aggressive China as America’s peer. The early-2000s assessments were based on a Russia reset, the tide of wars receding, and China as a responsible stakeholder; none of those three planning parameters hold. Even without factoring in the president’s policies, objectively the international environment is increasing demands.
The president’s budget allots only a 3-percent increase in the coming fiscal year DOD spending. When out-year projections are taken into account, the Trump budget will add only $463-billion increase through 2027. Despite political grandstanding about the “historic” size of the increase and a pledge to rebuild America’s armed forces, that is a very modest bump, probably inadequate even to rebuild current readiness shortfalls.
Moreover, the Trump budget would drastically reduce the congressionally-approved slush fund called Overseas Contingency Operations. The OCO funds are off-budget, so are unconstrained by the Budget Control Act ceilings, and currently funnel an additional $64 billion to Defense. Despite Defense Secretary James Mattis testifying that preserving OCO funding was one of his top five budget priorities, the president’s budget would reduce the funding to only $12 billion by the end of the five-year Future Years Defense Program.
To make matters worse, the president has offered up a budget there is no reasonable possibility the Congress will enact, because it both exceeds BCA caps by $52 billion and pays for the modest increase in defense spending by violating the mandated dollar for dollar balance between domestic and defense spending. The former chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Republican Hal Rodgers, called it “politically impossible.” Mattis testified that his own budget fails to fund $33 billion in needed spending.
One bleak interpretation of the White House’s intention is that the administration is seeking to make it safe for Republicans to vote in favor of budgets that increase deficit spending. Under this theory, in order to get increases in defense, conservatives would swallow their concern about the debt and agree to increases in domestic spending. In short, the administration would be betting on budget hawks abjuring their principles. They would also be setting DOD up to be the villain as the only government activity whose spending is increasing, and that at the cost of other national priorities.
There is, of course, no reason Congress needs to pay any attention to the president’s budget submission. It can, and should, increase defense spending because the objective circumstances of protecting the country now require it. The president’s budget provides no blueprint for Congress to do so, but it’s easy to see what a bipartisan plan might look like: an agreed topline of a 3-5 percent increase in federal spending, split proportionately (if not exactly equally) between defense and domestic needs, and funded by modest adjustments to entitlement programs. Congress has the ability to better advance America’s national security in several dimensions by increasing defense spending, putting national finances on sounder footing, and moving ahead in a bipartisan way to solve our national problems.
If Congress will not find a way out of the dysfunctionality of sequestration—and the unwillingness to compromise that triggers it—the only other way to bring our requirements into line with our spending is to reduce those requirements. If Congress won't provide adequate funding, it should at least provide guidance to the administration about which obligations we have undertaken for our security that we as a country should pare back. Where should the administration accept greater risk? Maybe instead of producing an “unfunded requirements” list, the secretary of defense should write his strategy in incremental spending thresholds that show what would have to be sacrificed in order for DOD to have confidence it could meet the strategy’s requirements. That way, Congress could choose the nation’s fate by choosing its level of spending.