Last Thursday, President Trump released his first budget proposal, outlining billions of dollars in cuts from programs designed to protect the environment, help the poor, and shore up struggling foreign countries. The way America's new commander-in-chief sees it, most of that money should go to his military, with some siphoned off for extra border security, of course. The plan, a document helpfully titled, "America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again," claims that if we want to reverse the gross atrophy of the Obama era, the government must "make the safety of our people its number one priority—because without safety, there can be no prosperity."
In order to boost the defense budget by $54 billion, Trump hopes Congress will agree to such cuts as large as 28 percent from the budget for the State Department, nearly 18 percent at Health and Human Services and a whopping 31 percent from the Environmental Protection Agency. Oh, and the complete annihilation of federal funding for the arts, humanities, and public broadcasting.
Trump's austerity measures could hit programs that feed elderly Americans, pay to keep homes warm in winter, and supervise working people's kids after school. But in return, Americans would, in theory, enjoy the piece of mind that comes from knowing more and better weapons are out there somewhere, putting the hurt on their enemies. "The military has been forced to make aging ships, planes, and other vehicles last well beyond their intended life spans," the White House says in the document.
But are America's ships, planes, and vehicles really all that decrepit? After all, the United States boasts the costliest military in the world—and it's not like fears of a military-industrial complex have faded in recent years. To find out where this military funding could and should go if Trump actually secures it—this budget remains a mere proposal, requiring passage by Congress—I talked to Adam Routh and Paul Scharre at the Center for a New American Security, a public policy think tank in Washington, DC, focused on the military. They told me the Pentagon could spend the money wisely on modernization and readiness—or easily blow all the extra dough on silly extravagances.
VICE: What is your overall impression of the president's proposed military spending increases?
Adam Routh: In my first impression from reading over the blueprint, it lists a lot of the things we need to do, like improve stocks of critical ammunition, personnel gaps, and deferred maintenance. We need to fix these problems and talk about what the budget needs to do. But the increase is not enough to do all of those things. So you need to decide what is most important and how you leverage that increase efficiently and effectively.
OK, so how much of a dent can this money make, then, compared to what the president has promised to do to the armed forces?
Paul Scharre: I think it's really hard to say, because what's come out is really just a one-page bulleted list, and there are no numbers associated with it. So the types of things, qualitatively, like improving readiness, buying more ships, buying more aircrafts, but how many? Now, Trump has said numbers on the campaign trail. I think one of the challenges is going to be, if he's going to do those things in the actual budget the Pentagon releases, and monetize the force, there is not enough money for that. There's just not. He can't build an army of 540,000 people, 250-plus ships in the navy, and add around 1,200 aircraft. It's just not possible.
But assuming you were going to shower the Pentagon with cash, how would you prioritize new spending?
Routh: I think readiness is probably a priority, as well as modernization. I think you could probably commit all of the increase to modernization without touching readiness if you really wanted to.
What do you mean by "readiness"?
Scharre: Imagine that you own a fleet of delivery trucks that you own for a company. So you have a fixed amount of money, and you decide to spend it on your fleet of delivery trucks. [There are] three attributes that the military is balancing: readiness, modernization, and capacity. Capacity is like how many trucks you have in your delivery fleet. Modernization is how new they are and how good quality they are. Readiness is basically like how much they are being kept up to date. How do you replace the tires when they need to get replaced? Have you changed the oil? When you start to fall behind on that maintenance, it's a longer-term cost as you're wearing it down.
What are some specific examples of areas where additional spending does seem appropriate?
In essence, maintenance and training are the main two things. People have delayed maintenance that was necessary for aircrafts and ships and ground vehicles. Over time, in terms of availability rates, we have things that aren't available to fly. And, in training, it's much more insidious. There's sort of an osteoporosis that sets in the force that becomes brutal. You can't see it; you can't know or measure the effect that happens if [soldiers] haven't been to the range or [pilots] haven't been flying. But then it shows up in things like accidents.
Routh: I think a really good example of this could be seen in Marine Corps pilot hours. Basically, due to the lack of money to maintain flight status, [an] accident happened [in October of last year].
When you say "modernization," are there examples we would see early on if this money got appropriated?
Scharre: The Army in particular very much has a modernization crisis. We haven't really modernized the force in the last 15 years. [They need] active protection systems on ground vehicles that can be used to intercept incoming threats and guided missiles. They could upgrade the sensors, upgrade the guns on their ground vehicles. They have a program of long-range [artillery], where Russia has [already] been investing quite a bit—long-range precision fires that have really fallen behind. That's a place where they need to do more electronic warfare.
Is the military eyeing other new stuff?
In the aviation department, they have modernization programs that are more or less—at this point in time—on track. They're [working on] air-launched swarming drones that would be launched from aircrafts. Technologically, it's doable. They've already demonstrated that capability. They've launched the drones and used them. It's probably not that outrageously expensive, because they're small and cheap. But that's the kind of thing that could probably fit in there.
Does it seem like the White House and Pentagon would spend this money well if they actually get it?
The biggest thing is that the way Trump has talked about building the military, it's just not really what the military needs to be doing. He's just talked about larger numbers. That's not what you need. What we need are more advanced systems.
What kind of things should America not spend this theoretical money on?
Routh: You would probably not want to spend, you know, $6 or $7 billion to do some really new, innovative rail gun. The technology is emerging, and we'll have it soon, but to have it now just means a disproportionate use of the money.
Scarre: The Pentagon loves new technology, and obviously new technology, in the past, has given tremendous advantages. The US Defense industry had things like stealth and the foundations of the internet, so these things matter. They can have big advantages and give great payoffs. But [even though] there's always a fair amount of hype and excitement about new things, you really can get yourself into trouble when it tries to leap ahead to something new that's not needed [yet]. You get into trouble when [the budget] says, "We're going to shoot for the moon, and we're going to do something that we don't really know how to do yet, and we're going to spend a gazillion dollars on it and hope it gets there." That tends to not work very well.
Routh: If you take this money and you add like 90,000 more soldiers to the US Army, but they don't have the equipment to be successful, that's a poor use of your money.
OK, so do you think the military will actually get this cash?
Scharre: The story of this budget isn't really the defense increase—which is not quite as much as they're hyping it to be. It's a reasonable increase; it's 3 percent over the Obama plan's 2018 levels. But the real story of course is the massive cuts in non-defense spending. It looks right now like those aren't going to survive even a Republican-controlled [Congress].
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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