Specifically, Trump wants to boost “base” military spending by US$52.3 billion to $574 billion, an increase of 10 percent over fiscal year 2016. Separately, he’s requesting $65 billion for ongoing wars.
Trump’s rhetoric aside, a 10 percent increase would not actually rank among the nation’s largest, as many quickly pointed out. But that exaggeration should not be the central concern for Americans as they monitor how Trump and Congress debate how to spend their hard-earned dollars. The real problem is whether any increase is justified.
President Trump is arguing for a military buildup before producing a strategic vision or laying out priorities to guide the new spending. Instead he has justified it, so far, on two misleading premises: that President Barack Obama slashed the defense budget and that as a result the military is depleted and needs to be rebuilt.
Paying for two wars
Since 2001, Congress has funded the Pentagon in two separate ways.
The first is through the base budget for the Department of Defense. The second is in the form of emergency supplemental appropriations bills that cover, in effect, the extra or net costs created by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and related military actions elsewhere. These “emergency” appropriations are called Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds.
From 2001 to 2012 the Pentagon’s base budget increased 85 percent, from $287 billion to $530 billion. That 85 percent does not include the OCO funds, which totaled $1.36 trillion over the same 12 years, for an average of an additional $113 billion per year on top of the base budget. War funding alone was more than what China – the world’s second-biggest military spender – spent on its entire defense budget during those same years.
Adjusted for inflation, U.S. military budgets reached the highest levels since World War II, significantly exceeding expenditures during Korea, Vietnam and the Reagan years.
It is also important to note that the entirely separate budget for Veterans Affairs increased by 162 percent over this same period, from nearly $48 billion to just under $125 billion (and last year it was over $160 billion).
Claim #1: Obama slashed military spending
This brief overview of American military spending since 9/11 provides context for the misleading and widespread implication that the defense budget was significantly reduced under President Obama.
While on board the U.S.‘s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, President Trump described “years of endless budget cuts that have impaired our defenses.”
During his two terms, President Obama ended combat operations in Iraq and, after a relatively brief surge, did the same in Afghanistan. So naturally as two expensive wars were ending, military spending fell. The cuts came mostly in contingency spending. The Pentagon’s base budget remained at near record levels.
Under Obama, OCO spending fell from $163 billion in 2010 to $59 billion in 2016, as combat operations ceased in Iraq and wound down in Afghanistan after the surge.
The base budget declined from a peak of $530 billion in 2012 to $495 billion in 2013 after a budget agreement between Congress and Obama led to across-the-board spending cuts – known as the sequester – but climbed back to a planned $524 billion for the current fiscal year.
Even without the $85 billion in war spending, the 2014 base budget of $496 billion – the lowest in recent years – equaled the total spent by the next seven biggest military spenders combined, including our close allies Great Britain, Japan and France.
The bottom line is that base defense spending remains, from a historical and comparative perspective, at a very high levels.
Claim #2: Military is in desperate need of rebuilding
In his inaugural address, and echoing a regular theme from his 2016 campaign, President Trump lamented “the very sad depletion of our military” which he has vowed to “rebuild.” The truth is, we haven’t stopped building the military since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
As the budget numbers cited above show, the U.S. just had an enormous military buildup, which I refer to as the buildup hidden in plain sight, because everyone was paying attention to the wars. The post-9/11 buildup did not go away, only the wars did.
In many respects the “hidden in plain sight” buildup has been a do-it-all, no-priorities affair, with significant increases in funding for research and development, pay, benefits, intelligence and weapons procurement. The key “investment” portions of the base military budget (procurement and R&D) increased 147 percent and 107 percent, respectively, from 2000 to 2010.
As one example, the Air Force procured 187 F-22 Raptors – the world’s most advanced fighter – for around $67 billion in the 2000s. But at the same time, it started production of what has since become the most expensive weapons program in world history, the Joint Strike Fighter (aka F-35 Lightning II), which is estimated to cost around $380 billion.
In addition, whole new weapons programs, most notably the MRAP armored vehicle (nearly $50 billion for over 26,000 MRAPS in about five years), were developed and produced just for the wars.
If Trump’s plans for greater spending are implemented, we would be adding a buildup right on top of another. Military spending adjusted for inflation was comparable to that under President Reagan, without including war appropriations. And OCO spending has been used, as is well-documented, not just to pay for the wars but also for equipment, such as F-35s and V-22 Osprey transport planes, to be used beyond or even separate from the conflict zones. In the core years of the wars, for example, procurement and R&D comprised 20 percent to 30 percent of OCO spending.
What presidents, Congress and the Pentagon did not make over this period were tough decisions about what to fund and what could be cut. The U.S. military vaulted forward in military technology, propelled by the urgency of the wars on terror and the flood of spending, making what was already the best trained and equipped military in the world even better in both categories.
This immense and sustained buildup also highlighted the extent to which the Pentagon – which still has not completed a congressionally mandated audit – could not account for how hundreds of billions of dollars of its budget has been spent.
Consequently, I would argue the military’s problem is not that it has too little money. The Pentagon has had more than enough. Instead, the problem is how that money has been spent.
Before the president and Congress send the military budget once again skyward, they should account for how the Pentagon has used the trillions of dollars it has spent since 9/11 and a plan that balances U.S. strategy and resources.
Beyond some simplistic and at times contradictory statements, the Trump administration has nothing like a grand strategy to guide its desired buildup. In other words, it’s putting the cart before the horse.
In lieu of this, President Trump has so far leaned heavily on the slippery concept of “peace through strength,” even though all these years of unrivaled U.S. power – and our repeated use of it – have not produced peace. The president seems to see military strength almost as an end in itself, or “performative,” as military analyst Erin Simpson put it, a kind of show or performance, regardless of whether the capabilities are matched to the threats we face.
It is, if nothing else, a very expensive performance, but one that at least will be “made in America” befitting Trump’s stand on economics and trade. Standing on the deck of the $13 billion USS Gerald R. Ford, Trump reminded his audience that “American workers will build our fleets.” Whatever else it may be, an increase in military spending is one economic stimulus program that will sail through a Republican Congress.
Trump has been critical of the recent wars and their consequences. Yet, if he launches another unchecked military spending spree, he and Congress will compound rather than fix the problems of priorities and waste created by and amid those wars.