- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Over 18 months of campaign stops, stump speeches, and debates, President-elect Donald Trump rarely detailed his plans for the U.S. military, other than pledging to use it as a blunt object to hammer the Islamic State and other foreign extremist groups that threaten the United States.
But there is much more to his national security vision, and it involves tens of thousands of new troops, dozens of ships and hundreds of warplanes. Defense experts said the plans would cost almost $100 billion more than the Pentagon has currently budgeted for Trump’s first term, an amount that would require Congress to change laws setting budget caps for the Pentagon.
Still unknown, however, is where that money would come from, given Trump’s other plans to slash taxes while keeping many entitlement programs intact and also embarking on a $1 trillion infrastructure improvement program.
“I see big deficits in our future,” said long-time budget analyst Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Speaking at the Atlantic Council earlier this week, Harrison noted that the U.S. Navy’s shipbuilding plans are already under extreme pressure to meet the goals of expensive new submarine and aircraft carrier programs. As they already stand, the budgets don’t take into account the inevitable cost overruns that come with such projects.
There’s also Congress to consider. Lawmakers have been unable to reach consensus on much when it comes to defense budgets in recent years. While most lawmakers can be relied on to increase the defense budget incrementally, Trump’s plans represent a massive military buildup not seen since the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
“I’m not so sure that that will actually happen,” Harrison said of a possible buildup, given the spending caps imposed under the 2011 Budget Control Act. Budget hawks on Capitol Hill have little incentive to peel back the caps, and given Trump’s promises to keep many entitlement programs intact, money will continue to be tight.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters this week that any increases in defense spending — should the budget caps be repealed — would require “Democrats to buy in.”
So “I think you’re going to have to look at some non-defense areas of the government” that would also be in line for more funding,” Graham said.
By far the most expensive part of Trump’s plan is to grow the U.S. Navy by dozens of ships in coming years. Defense hawks and Navy leadership have warned of the dangers inherent in shrinking the size of the fleet to its current level of 272 ships, and that number is slated to rise to 308 over the next 30 years. Yet even that increase won’t be enough, experts said, to meet American commitments abroad — particularly given the buildup of the Chinese and Russian navies in recent years.
The number of hulls many analysts have settled on as necessary — including those in the Trump team — is 350. Mackenzie Eaglen and Rick Berger of the American Enterprise Institute estimate the cost of growing the fleet to 350 is possible if the Navy is given an extra $15 billion over the next four years, with another $60 billion in the years beyond that. The Congressional Research Service recently estimated the Navy would need about $4 billion a year over the course of 30 years to reach the goal of a 350-ship Navy.
An internal Trump campaign memo from October obtained by the Navy Times indicates the ship buildup would be, at least in part, a jobs program. “Mr. Trump’s plan will require a significant partnership with a defense industrial base that has been strained by years of significant cuts to shipbuilding and ship repair,” the memo said. “The nationwide infrastructure of yards, depots, and support facilities that created and sustained the World War II and Cold War-era Navy has been largely dismantled.”
When it comes to the Army, candidate Trump called for an active-duty force of 540,000 soldiers — up from the currently budgeted force of 450,000. But adding troops, which Army leadership would clearly love to do, comes with a price. The plan would cost between $35 to $50 billion during the four-year Trump term, Eaglen and Berger estimated. There is significant support in Congress for more soldiers, but no lawmaker has suggested a way to pay for troops increase.
For the Marine Corps, Trump advocates increasing the size of the active-duty force to 200,000 from the current target of 182,000. That would run at least $12 billion over four years.
The Air Force would also receive a massive shot in the arm, if the Trump administration managed to get Congress to play ball. The plan is to grow the fighter fleet by about 900 planes to 1,200 combat aircraft. The quickest way to do so would likely be to increase purchasing of the long-troubled and over-budget F-35A fighter, for which the Air Force would need an extra $30 billion over the next four years.
These spending plans come as Trump’s team has called for cutting non-defense spending by about 1 percent a year, a move that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said would strangle entitlements and all other government programs by as much as 37 percent by 2026. That would not sit well with Democrats on Capitol Hill. But, as Harrison noted, “Democrats are out of power.”
Photo Credit: Specialist 3rd Class Jake Greenberg/U.S. Navy via Getty Images