The first time I met Gen. David Petraeus, he said something that surprised me. It was the early days of the Iraq War and, although things were not going well, he had directed his region in the north skillfully and effectively. I asked him whether he wished he had more troops. Petraeus was too politically savvy to criticize the Donald Rumsfeld “light footprint” strategy, so he deflected the question, answering it a different way. “I wish we had more Foreign Service officers, aid professionals and other kinds of non-military specialists,” he said. The heart of the problem the United States was facing in Iraq, he noted presciently, was a deep sectarian divide between Shiite and Sunni, Arab and Kurd. “We need help on those issues. Otherwise, we’re relying on 22-year-old sergeants to handle them. Now, they are great kids, but they really don’t know the history, the language, the politics.”
I thought of that exchange when reading reports that President Trump is proposing a $54 billion increase for the Defense Department, which would be offset by large cuts in the State Department, foreign aid and other civilian agencies. Trump says he wants to do this so that “nobody will dare question our military might again.” But no one does. The U.S. military remains in a league of its own. The U.S. defense budget in 2015 was nine times the size of Russia’s and three times that of China’s.
None of the difficulties the United States has faced over the past 25 years has been in any way because its military was too small or weak. As then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in a 2007 lecture, “One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win.” To achieve “long-term success,” he explained, requires “economic development, institution-building . . . [and] good governance.” Therefore, he called for “a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security,” including “diplomacy” and “foreign assistance.”
Consider the strategy that brought Iran to the negotiating table in 2013. It required intense diplomatic work to get Russia and China to agree to U.N. measures and to isolate Iran from neighbors such as Turkey. It took clever and tough sanctions devised by the Treasury Department that leveraged U.S. financial power. This is how power works in the modern world.
“We must do a lot more with less,” Trump said recently, adding that government needs to reform its ways. But the obvious target for this effort should be the Pentagon, which is the poster child for waste in government. The Pentagon is now the world’s largest bureaucracy, running a cradle-to-grave quasi-socialist system of employment, housing, health care and pensions for its 3 million employees. A recent report from its Defense Business Board concluded that it could easily save $125 billion over five years by removing operational inefficiencies. (Senior officials quickly buried the report .) Those savings would fund the entire State Department plus all foreign aid programs for two and a half years. Gates used to quip, “We have more people in military bands than we have Foreign Service officers.” The total numbers are worth noting. There are only 13,000 employees in the whole Foreign Service, compared with 742,000 civilians in the Defense Department.
Trump railed in his address to Congress, as he has in the past, about the $6 trillion that the United States has spent in the Middle East. That figure is exaggerated, but he’s right that when the Pentagon goes to war, costs go through the stratosphere. In just one example, ProPublica tallied up the audits of the special inspector general for Afghanistan and found that the military had wasted at least $17 billion on a variety of projects.
Rosa Brooks, who served as a civilian adviser at the Pentagon under President Barack Obama, has written a fascinating book, “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything,” that describes how U.S. policy has been contorted by a military that keeps expanding while all other agencies wither. One of the blurbs on the back of the book says, “One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. It’s as if we have been sleepwalking into this new world and Rosa has turned on a flashlight.” The commendation comes from Jim Mattis, now the secretary of defense. Perhaps he should give the book to his boss.
Trump is right to spend more on defense. Here’s how to do so wisely.
By Michèle Flournoy
Michèle Flournoy, chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, was undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2012.
In his address Tuesday to Congress, President Trump promised to make sure that the U.S. military gets what it needs to carry out its mission by securing “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.” More funding would surely be a good thing, although the issues of how much and what for are complicated. No one should be under any illusions that a higher Defense Department top line guarantees a more capable armed forces.
Trump is reportedly seeking $54 billion over the sequester caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which would bring 2018 defense spending to $603 billion. While Trump may view this proposal as historic, it’s only 3 percent more than President Barack Obama’s final budget request. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee has called for a much larger increase — to nearly $640 billion.
And as the post-9/11 defense buildup taught us, throwing more money at the Pentagon is not a panacea. What matters is how the money is spent. So what should we look for in the president’s budget request?
First, how is spending allocated across readiness, force structure and modernization?
There is broad consensus in the Pentagon and Congress that the most urgent priority is addressing readiness shortfalls that affect the military’s ability to respond quickly to crises and other near-term demands. Every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has highlighted readiness problems — such as inadequate training time and maintenance and replacement of equipment — as a source of accumulating risk. While Congress’s willingness to provide war funding — “overseas contingency operations” funds — above baseline defense spending has helped, it has not solved the problem.
The larger challenge will be striking the right balance between building a bigger force and building a better one. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has rightly defined his priority as building a “larger, more capable, and more lethal joint force” to contend with a more challenging international security environment and increasingly capable adversaries. But there are tradeoffs between paying for additional personnel and force structure vs. investing in the technology and capabilities necessary to prevail in more contested air, land, maritime, cyber and space domains. Although some increases in force size may be warranted, such as a larger Navy fleet and modest increases elsewhere, the dramatic across-the-board hikes in force structure that Trump proposed during his campaign are both unaffordable and unwise.
The bulk of any additional defense investment must focus on maintaining and extending our technological and warfighting edge, including in cyber, electronic and anti-submarine arenas, unmanned systems, automation, long-range striking and protected communications. U.S. military leaders should moderate their appetite for a bigger force today to protect critical investments in cutting-edge capabilities that will determine whether we succeed on the battlefield tomorrow.
Second, are deterrence and alliance capabilities being strengthened?
Critical to the United States’ ability to deter aggression and prevent conflict in regions where we have vital interests is deploying U.S. military forces forward and helping allies and partners build their own defense capacity. Some of these costs, such as those associated with routinely deploying naval forces around the world, reside in the base defense budget. Others, such as the European Reassurance Initiative, will be covered by annual overseas contingency funding. Still others, such as helping Israel field more robust missile defense systems, are enabled by the State Department’s foreign military financing. These investments, although relatively small in dollars, are disproportionately important to reducing the risk of more costly U.S. military engagements.
Third, does the budget keep faith with the men and women who serve? Any budget that claims to strengthen the U.S. military must put people first. Doing so requires reform. For example, does the budget adopt sensible reforms to military health care to improve quality while reining in costs? Does it improve education and professional development? Does it enable more flexible career paths to retain the best and brightest? Does it include a round of Base Realignment and Closure to shed the 30 percent of infrastructure the service chiefs say they no longer need, enabling savings to be reinvested in better training and equipment for those we send into harm’s way?
Fourth, how will we pay for the increased defense spending? The Trump administration has promised dollar-for-dollar cuts in non-defense programs, reportedly targeting the State Department and USAID for cuts of 30percent or more. This would create an even more imbalanced national security toolkit, limiting our ability to prevent crises through diplomacy and development and result in an overreliance on the military. As Mattis said while head of the U.S. Central Command, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” This approach also is unlikely to fly in Congress. Absent a larger budget deal that includes tax reform and reins in non-discretionary spending on Social Security and Medicare, the most likely result is a larger deficit.
Finally, if this defense spending increase isn’t part of a larger budget deal providing predictable spending levels for the next several years, it won’t have the desired impact. If the Pentagon is forced to operate under the threat of sequestration, it will not have the predictability necessary to make smart multiyear investments in the capabilities on which our security will hinge.
Trump is right to raise the need for more defense dollars, but Congress should scrub his request carefully to ensure that the money is spent wisely and not at the expense of non-defense programs that are critical to U.S. national security.