Trump Could Pump Tens of Billions Into the Army, Only to Make It Worse
The last time the Army got a ton of money, it blew much of it on poorly-planned, sloppily-executed technology programs.
Donald Trump speaks at a rally, December 2015. Photo: Marc Nozell
But Trump and his administration should be careful. Lavishing the Army with money might result in a bigger Army, but it won't necessarily result in a better Army. America's ground-combat branch has a reputation for dramatically squandering huge cash windfalls.
Trump hasn't detailed exactly how he'll grow the military—or how much it might cost. But outside experts estimate Trump's Pentagon could cost US taxpayers an additional $900 billion over 10 years compared to President Barack Obama's current spending plan.
The president-elect's goal, according to conservative think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, should be to get the Pentagon back to a level of funding the Pentagon enjoyed in 2010, a time when the United States still had large occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is to say, no less than $700 billion a year.
Traditionally, the Army gets around a quarter share of US defense spending. If Trump follows through with his plans and convinces Congress to pay for them, the Army could find itself with $175 billion to spend annually. That's $50 billion more than it's gotten in recent years.
There's risk in a sudden cash infusion. The last time the Army got a ton of money, it blew much of it on poorly-planned, sloppily-executed technology programs that ended up producing very little actual weaponry.
"All of the [military] services would very much like to see their budgets increased," Dan Grazier, a former Marine officer who is now an analyst at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, DC, told Motherboard. "But unless there is a strong leader at the top instilling discipline, they will continue to do what they have been doing—which is throw good money after bad or wasteful programs of dubious utility in real combat."
The most obvious example is also the most embarrassing for the Army. In the early 2000s, the Army conceived a nearly $200 billion plan to totally re-equip its brigades with hybrid-electric armored vehicles that communicated by way of a sophisticated wireless network and controlled swarms of tiny, lethal robots.
The Army's huge post-9/11 budget increases—which essentially doubled the branch's funding in just a few years—kept the lights on in the FCS office despite repeated delays in the program.
Future Combat Systems, as the scheme was known, might have seemed at place on the high-tech battlefield of some Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. But it was worse than useless in the gritty, grinding counterinsurgency campaigns that the Army found itself fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The vehicles were too flimsy to survive the massive roadside bombs favored by insurgents. The communications network did little to help infantrymen hunt down fleet-footed terrorists in dense, unfamiliar cities. The robots were expensive luxuries when what the troops really needed was better rifles, more-comfortable body armor, and better-protected vehicles that could protect them from ambushes and bombs.
Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled Future Combat Systems in 2009. "FCS vehicles—where lower weight, higher fuel efficiency and greater informational awareness are expected to compensate for less armor—do not adequately reflect the lessons of counterinsurgency and close-quarters combat in Iraq and Afghanistan," Gates explained.
FCS is hardly the only example of exorbitant waste on the Army's part. In 2002, the Pentagon canceled the Army's Crusader howitzer—a huge, 40-ton tracked cannon—after spending years and several billion dollars developing it. Military officials decided the gun was simply too big and heavy to deploy to remote, rugged war zones.
Likewise, in 2004 the military shit-canned the Comanche stealth scout helicopter after finally admitting that there was no point in trying to pile radar-evading technologies onto an aircraft that was meant to fly noisily and in plain sight directly overhead of friendly troops. The cancellation squandered nearly $10 billion worth of work.
In 2005, the Army began work on a new and much simpler scout chopper—the Arapaho—to replace the Comanche, and quickly. But the prototype was a sloppy rush-job. It suffered an engine failure during testing in 2007. The Army killed off the program a year later, flushing no less than $500 million down the drain.
To be fair, each failed program suffered its own unique problems. Some took so long to get off the ground that the world—and the Army's needs—changed around them. Some were under so much pressure to progress quickly that overworked planners and engineers got sloppy. Others were just bad ideas that evaporated once in contact with reality.
Ultimately, more money can't save bad ideas. In fact, more money sometimes encourages bad ideas.
"A sudden influx of resources reduces the pressure to prioritize and dilutes our attention," Dan Ward, a former Air Force technology-developer and author of The Simplicity Cycle, told Motherboard. "A sudden influx of money makes us sloppy and gets in the way of sound decision-making. Rather than focus on delivering capabilities that matter, as we do during lean budget years, we end up chasing shiny gadgets and adding extra features and functions to our system."
"The problem is that adding unnecessary complexity to our systems, even if we can afford the additions, does not make them better," Ward added. "It actually makes them more likely to underperform. Excessive complexity makes weapon systems more fragile, heavier, harder to maintain and debug, harder to learn and less likely to contribute meaningfully in real-world operations."
Amid the wreckage of canceled programs worth hundreds of billions of dollars, in early 2015 then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh finally admitted the obvious. "I'm very mindful of the spotty history of the United States Army on acquisition programs," McHugh told reporters. "But I do think, in fairness, we've got to say much of it is just that—history."
McHugh insisted that the Army, by 2015, was doing better at managing its money and developing new gear. That assertion could undergo a stress test if and when the Trump administration opens the funding spigot. Considering the Army's terrible track record, there's reason to be skeptical that more money will mean more and better weaponry.
It just might mean the opposite. Trump could pump more cash into the Army, only to make the Army worse.
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