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Cruz Wants $750B For Defense: Boost Services, Not Special Ops

Posted by Mark Cancian on

Ted Cruz the family version 2016 presidential election

Ted Cruz now leads Donald Trump in at least some national polls. So when the senator offered a fairly detailed military blueprint for his presidency on Tuesday, CSIS defense budget analyst Mark Cancan jumped on it. He ran Cruz’s assumptions and numbers through CSIS’ Force Cost Calculator. What did he find? Read on. The Editor.

In a major speech this week, Republican presidential candidate and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz made specific proposals for national security. It may be that after months of expansive rhetoric about rebuilding America’s defenses and getting tough with foreign threats, candidates finally feel the need to be specific.

Here are the basics:

  • A regular Army of 525,000 “trained and fully equipped soldiers”. [Current target: 450,000]
  • A Navy of 12 carrier strike groups and “at least 350 ships”. [Current target: 11 carriers and 308 ships]
  • An Air Force of “at least 6,000 total airplanes, with a minimum of 1,500 tactical fighter aircraft”. Also increasing the number of unmanned aircraft and pilots for ISR. [Current target: 5,500 total aircraft and about 1,100 fighter attack aircraft]
  • A larger Marine Corps, with a review of the Marine Corps’s request “for exemption from requiring women to serve in combat positions”. (Note to Cruz staff: the Commandant who made that recommendation is now the Chairman; the current Commandant is comfortable with the Obama policy.)
  • Total active duty personnel of 1.5 million. [Current target: 1.27 million]
  • No change to Special Operations forces.
  • Fully funded modernization of all three legs of the nuclear triad. [Current plans would do this, but ignore the large investment bow wave in 2020s]
  • Expanded missile defense capabilities. [Funding has been level in real terms for many years.]

To his credit, Cruz does not just vacuum up ideas produced by others. Back in October Carly Fiorina produced a detailed defense program. Although not unreasonable given her vision of national security, the proposal was taken almost entirely from recommendations made by the Heritage Foundation. Cruz, in contrast. has produced his own set of recommendations.

Cruz’s proposals are not particularly radical, having been discussed earlier by various analysts and commentators. This is especially true of discussions in the last year or two, as hopes for a peaceful post-Iraq and Afghanistan era were dashed by Chinese assertiveness, Russian aggression and ISIL battlefield successes.

However, his proposal to build up the Army and Marine Corps and not Special Operations forces is relatively novel. Cruz argues that “[special operations forces] are not an answer to our lack of conventional capacity”. James Carafano at Heritage has raised this same point: special forces with their direct action (i. e., killing and detention of high value targets) and spotting for air attacks are highly skilled but are not a substitute for boots on the ground. Politicians like special operators because of their excellence and the prospect of getting strategic effects with minimal force commitment, but they will not achieve decisive results on their own.

Also interesting is Cruz’s proposal to “declare a policy of [cyber] retribution… to aggressively strike back when needed”. He makes the argument that the United States needs to think about cyber deterrence the same way we think about nuclear deterrence. This is a controversial concept in the cyber community because it “militarizes” the peaceful cyberspace domain and would reveal secret wartime capabilities.  But there is certainly an argument to be made that our current policy of playing defense is not working.

All that new equipment and force structure costs money – a lot.  Cruz acknowledges this, noting that the United States would have to increase its national security spending from the current 3.3 percent of (Gross Domestic Product) to 4.1 percent, declining eventually to 4 percent. That equates to a total national security budget of about $750 billion, presumably including not just the DoD but also war funding (OCO), the nuclear weapons element of the Department of Energy, and national security elements of other agencies like the FBI. Running his proposed program through the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Force Cost Calculator and estimating specific numbers for his rhetoric (“high readiness”) comes up with about the same budget level – slightly less actually, so, perhaps uniquely among candidates, Cruz can’t be accused of underestimating the cost of his proposals. (And a gold star to the Cruz staff who did the budgeting.)

This $750 billion budget would be about $140 billion higher than the fiscal 2017 Obama recommendation of $610 billion. On the one hand, that’s a huge increase compared to where the budget is today. It would take defense spending about $50 billion above DoD’s 2012 projection, which then-Secretary Robert Gates considered to be the minimum required level, before the Budget Control Act of 2011 cut hundreds of billions of dollars over a decade. On the other hand, the burden on the economy would not be particularly heavy by Cold War standards, when defense spending averaged 6 percent to 7 percent of GDP.

Of course, the problem is how to pay for this. Cruz proposes “getting America to 5 percent [economic] growth” through “sweeping tax and regulatory reform, cutting spending and selling federal assets and properties”. I will let economists judge whether such a program would be successful.

There is one area where Cruz and Bernie Sanders (!) are in sync: eliminating waste and unnecessary programs in the Pentagon.  Cruz and Sanders were cosponsors of the “Audit the Pentagon Act”. As I noted in my earlier article on Sanders, eliminating waste and duplication is a sound idea but is much harder to do in practice than in theory. Real reform is possible think base closures (BRAC), but in general one person’s unnecessary program is another person’s vital national security commitment. For example, are the generous health care benefits provided to retired military personnel excessive, as some analysts argue, or an obligation owed by the 99% to the 1% who served on their behalf? Saving money through efficiencies is not a matter of eliminating waste but of making tradeoffs.

One must protest the standard line of Republican candidates that the Obama administration has unilaterally cut forces and reduced budgets. This is a case of selective amnesia. The severe cuts of recent years were the result of the 2011 Budget Control Act, a piece of legislation driven by the new Republican majority in the House. Yes, Obama did sign the legislation, but it was a Republican creation and continues because of Republican support.

Here’s the challenge to the other presidential candidates — Republican and Democratic – put your specifics about defense on the table so we can have a debate that goes beyond platitudes. A year from now one of you will be president. We—both the people in general and the “commentariat” in DC—deserve to know what you plan to do with the most powerful military in the world.

Mark Cancian, a former top defense budget analyst at the Office of Managment and Budget under President Obama, is a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

This is the third in our occasional series analyzing the budgetary and strategic implications of the seemingly endless parade of presidential hopefuls in the 2016 race.


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