When Donald Trump discussed his defense program in Philadelphia on Wednesday, the bluster and lunacy of the primary season were gone and he offered a scripted position paper that reflected (mostly) mainstream Republican ideas.
There is still lots one might disagree with, but the discipline of the teleprompter meant that he read a staff-prepared paper that put forward a reasoned program and mostly got the facts right. His program is similar to those put forward by Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz during the campaign season, when Fiorina and Cruz were the only candidates who proposed specific numbers. Like theirs, his proposals come mostly from the conservative Heritage Foundation but also from the 2014 National Defense Panel. The problem is that the program he puts forward doesn’t really square with the foreign policy that he has been espousing. Let’s take a look at Trump’s proposed program piece by piece (glossing over the many diatribes against his opponent, Hillary Clinton).
Army. Trump calls for a regular Army “of around 540,000”, 90,000 soldiers more than the Obama administration target of 450,000. Trump would expand the Army from 31 active-duty brigade combat teams to about 40. The Army has been quite vocal about its concerns with the Army’s size, noting that the Army was 482,000 in 2001 as the wars began. Gen. Mark Milley, Army Chief of Staff, has talked about 490,000 as a comfortable level. At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the Army hit 566,000, so 540,000 would not quite be at that level but it would be substantially higher than recent peacetime history. On the other hand, the regular Army was at 780,000 at the end of the Cold War, so the proposal is far below Cold War levels. Interestingly, and consistent with the Heritage proposal, Trump does not call for any increases in the reserve components. There would likely be some additions to reserve logistics forces to support the expanded active-duty force, but the reserves are clearly not a primary focus.
Navy. Trump calls for a Navy of 350 ships, a level he attributes to the National Defense Panel. (The panel actually proposed 320 to 346 ships.) This is about 40 ships higher than the 310 ships the Navy expects to attain in the 2020s. It’s not an unreasonable level since the Navy reached 590 ships at the end of the Reagan administration and was at 350 ships as recently as 1997. It’s a long-term goal though, given constraints in the shipbuilding industry, so it would be the 2030s before the Navy actually reached 350.
Trump does wade into the ship counting controversy. As with Mitt Romney before him he notes that the current Navy of 276 ships is the smallest level since 1915. This is correct using the Navy’s official ship count. Critics in 2012 noted that today’s ships a much more powerful, which is true, but so are those of our adversaries. Still, it’s hard to make comparisons across a century of time.
There’s some discussion about a relatively obscure issue on modernization of 22 older cruisers, which need not concern us here except to note that Trump sides with the Republicans in Congress against the administration. It is not normally noteworthy when a presidential candidate supports his party in Congress, but Trump has had such rocky relations with congressional Republicans that this looks like an olive branch.
Marine Corps. Trump calls for a Marine Corps of 36 active-duty infantry battalions, a number that also comes from Heritage. With customary supporting units, this implies an active duty Marine Corps of about 240,000 personnel, up from the planned 182,000 and 24 infantry battalions. The odd thing about this number is that, unlike the proposed sizes for the Army, Navy, and Air Force, which the services have attained in recent memory, the Marine Corps has not been at this size since the height of the Vietnam war. At the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars it only reached 203,000. Heritage arrived at this size based on what it believed was necessary to meet the requirements of two near-simultaneous conflicts and extensive forward deployments.
Air Force. Trump calls for “at least 1,200 fighter aircraft” consistent with the Heritage proposal. Unlike with the other services, this counts both active and reserve forces. The Air Force’s planned level is about 1,100 aircraft, so reaching 1,200 is not much of a stretch. Attaining that level would require executing planned procurement of the F-35A, however, and maintenance of a substantial number of legacy aircraft like F 16’s, F-15s, and A-10s. The challenge will be doing this while paying for other expensive Air Force programs like the KC-46 tanker, the B-21 bomber and nuclear modernization.
Missile defense. Trump calls for “a state-of-the-art missile defense system” without offering any more detail. As my colleague Thomas Karako has pointed out, the Missile Defense Agency has seen its budget squeezed by a reduced top line, a need to support fielded systems, and the procurement of systems for Israel. Buying back the lost purchasing power would require about $3 billion per year.
How much will all this cost? The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has a Force Cost Calculator that produces a defense budget given inputs for forces, readiness, and modernization. Using Trump’s proposed forces, and making reasonable assumptions about other elements of the program, the answer comes out $93 billion per year above the Budget Control Act (BCA) level. (Trump calls it the “sequestration” level, which is technically wrong but a common mistake.) This would be about $60 billion per year above President Obama’s proposed five year plan, which itself is substantially above the BCA level. Trump’s implied budget would take defense to about where it was prior to the BCA (the FY 2012 FYDP) which Gates cited at the time as the minimum level and which a Trump staffer acknowledged as the likely budget level (so the staff gets a gold star for budget honesty).
Trump has moved past his earlier simplistic rhetoric about how he could provide more defense at less cost by eliminating waste. The notion that there are vast quantities of waste in the Department of Defense that can be eliminated with no effect on capability is nonsense, and serious policy types understand that. Trump does call for reductions in the civilian workforce and in overhead, consistent with efforts in the Congress led by Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Trump also recognizes that the Budget Control Act would need to be repealed, something that Clinton and most of the Congress, except the Republican Freedom Caucus, support. The difficulty is that Republicans want to increase only defense while the Democrats want to increase domestic spending as well as defense, and that difference has hobbled budget negotiations. So Trump’s OMB director will have his hands full trying to “make the deal”.
Trump does say that he will fully offset these increases with “common sense reforms” that eliminate government waste and budget gimmicks”. He cites improper government payments and unpaid taxes as targets, which are sensible efforts but which have been pursued by every administration. There’s just not much savings there. He’ll need to come up with something more to really produce savings, and that will be painful.
The strategic problem is that this defense program, however mainstream it may be (at least for a Republican), doesn’t really fit the foreign policy that Trump has been advocating. That foreign policy—which has been called “restraint” or even “isolationism” — emphasizes a wariness towards allied engagement and overseas conflicts, a removal of forces from overseas bases and return to the homeland, and putting more burden on wealthy allies. Trump acknowledges the last element by saying he will “respectfully ask countries such as Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia to pay more for the tremendous security we provide them”. (“Respectfully” is not a word that was heard much from Trump during the primaries and especially not with regard to our allies—it’s the teleprompter again.)
The larger military that Trump proposes building would be well structured for forward presence and allied engagement, the opposite of what Trump’s foreign policy would imply. To implement a strategy of “restraint” one would build a military that was stationed in the United States and sent forward only in the rare occurrence of a foreign conflict. Such a military could reside much more in the reserves, because deployment timelines would take longer, and would also need expanded mobility forces to move forces overseas. Sorting through this strategy-forces mismatch will be the job of the initial strategic review, should Trump actually get the opportunity to conduct one. Good luck to his Secretary of Defense.
Trump deserves credit for putting a specific program on the table so the voters can get a better sense of what a President Trump might do. It also gives the “commentariat” in the think tanks and media something to chew on—and chew we will. Maybe it will push Clinton to table her own program, rather than hide behind the notion of a post-election commission. She certainly has the advisors to do it, having enticed every democratic policy expert (and a few Republicans) to work for her. That would allow a discussion of differing strategies, programs and budgets, as every presidential election should boast.
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.