By Anthony Cordesman, Center for Strategic and International Studies–

President Trump pledged in his joint address to Congress on February 28, 2017 that, “Our military will be given the resources its brave warriors so richly deserve.” He then went on to close his list of promises by saying that,

“Finally, to keep America Safe we must provide the men and women of the United States military with the tools they need to prevent war and — if they must — to fight and to win. I am sending the Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the Defense sequester, and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.”

A day earlier, the White House press spokesman announced that:

  • ​President Trump has proposed increasing the military’s budget by $54 billion so that it can begin to rebuild.
  • President Trump signed a Presidential Memorandum directing the Secretary of Defense to work with other cabinet members to develop a plan to defeat ISIS.
  • President Trump ordered a review of military readiness and made it the policy of the United States to rebuild the United States’ Armed Forces.
  • Under President Trump’s leadership, the Department of the Treasury sanctioned 25 entities and individuals involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program.
  • President Trump accelerated negotiations that drove down the price of the F-35 fighter, saving more than $700 million.

A separate statement was put up on the “issues” section of the White House web page that made some more focused statements about the President’s priorities, but provided no specifics or broad priorities for any aspect of national security:

The Trump Administration will rebuild our military and do everything it can to make sure our veterans get the care they deserve.

Our military needs every asset at its disposal to defend America. We cannot allow other nations to surpass our military capability. The Trump Administration will pursue the highest level of military readiness.

President Trump will end the defense sequester and submit a new budget to Congress outlining a plan to rebuild our military. We will provide our military leaders with the means to plan for our future defense needs.

We will also develop a state-of-the-art missile defense system to protect against missile-based attacks from states like Iran and North Korea. Cyberwarfare is an emerging battlefield, and we must take every measure to safeguard our national security secrets and systems. We will make it a priority to develop defensive and offensive cyber capabilities at our U.S. Cyber Command, and recruit the best and brightest Americans to serve in this crucial area.

Calling for More Spending in One Year is Not Enough

Neither the President nor the White House, however, explained where the $54 billion figure came from, what it will buy, how many of the immediate problems in defense readiness it would solve, or what would happen to defense spending after FY2018. As work by Todd Harrison of the CSIS showed, the proposed increase could only marginally be called ” one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.”

Neither the President’s speech nor the White House statements mentioned the fact that the Obama Administration and the Congress had already spent beyond the budget caps in FY2017, or the Obama Administration had already planned a $35 billion increase in FY2017. This meant that even if the entire $54 billion was to be spent in the next fiscal year, it would still be only a $19 billion increase over the Obama Administration figure. Moreover, the $54 billion increase would only increase total spending to $603 billion, and Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, had previously called for an increase in military spending to $640 billion to meet urgent needs.

Neither the President nor the White House made any mention of his campaign calls for major increases in Army and Marine Corps manpower, in aircraft for the Air Force, or Ships for the Navy. Aside from touching upon cyberwarfare and missile defense, the President did not announce a single measure to reinforce U.S. national security that would deal with any specific foreign threat, or actual military mission capability.

President Trump did not discuss China, Russian, North Korea, Iran, or any specific terrorist threat in the speech to the session of Congress. He instead talked about a world shaped more by Obama-like optimism than by any real world challenge:

“Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people — and America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path. My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America. But we know that America is better off, when there is less conflict — not more…We must learn from the mistakes of the past — we have seen the war and destruction that have raged across our world…The only long-term solution for these humanitarian disasters is to create the conditions where displaced persons can safely return home and begin the long process of rebuilding…America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align. We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict…We want peace, wherever peace can be found. America is friends today with former enemies. Some of our closest allies, decades ago, fought on the opposite side of these World Wars. This history should give us all faith in the possibilities for a better world.”

He left it unclear whether—and how much—other aspects of national security spending like foreign aid will be cut—and if so, how and where. He did not discuss any aspect of the ongoing U.S. wars in areas like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Moreover, his discussion of U.S. alliances and security partnerships was as ambiguous and uncertain as ever:

“Our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world. It is American leadership based on vital security interests that we share with our allies across the globe. We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two World Wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War that defeated communism…But our partners must meet their financial obligations…And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that. We expect our partners, whether in NATO, in the Middle East, or the Pacific — to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations, and pay their fair share of the cost. We will respect historic institutions, but we will also respect the sovereign rights of nations.”

Too Soon to Really Judge, But…

That said, it is far too soon to judge this President in terms of his national security policy. President Trump has called elsewhere for a new national security strategy, has talked about broad increases in forces, and has directed that the Department of Defense develop new strategies for fighting Islamic extremism.

There also is only so much the President Trump can do before the Pentagon has developed a new strategy; there are practical limits to any supplemental or reprograming of remaining FY2017 funds, or for increases in the FY2018 budget. Formulating a new national security strategy that has a real world impact on long-term defense planning—rather than simply outlining new goals and concepts that may never actually be implemented—can probably only take tangible form when the President makes his FY2019 budget request, and this will not be public until early 2018.

At the same time, one needs to be very careful about the merits of simply spending more on defense without deciding on priorities, or on real world future needs. The United States now has a long history of bipartisan failure in coming to grips with key strategic issues and effective defense planning under at least two Presidents: George W. Bush and Barak Obama, and under Congresses dominated by both the Democratic and Republican parties.

The United States has not had any real long term force or budget plan since at least FY2002. Every year has been a new adjustment to defense spending for both the basic structure of U.S. forces or “baseline,” and some new adjustment to the actual wars the United States is fighting, which has been paid for by supplemental funding, or a separate Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.

Far more broadly, no Administration has seriously addressed the growing challenge of balancing the entire structure of spending in the federal budget. Regardless of the Budget Control Act, the gap between spending and revenues has continued, and the United States has steadily cut the share of the U.S. economy it spends on national security to help fund civil mandatory or “entitlement” programs.

U.S. national security strategies and force plans have not been shaped by the need to perform key missions or to meet key threats, nor have they been tied to clear choices between force size, force quality and readiness, and technological innovation and modernization. Instead, these strategies and force plans have focused conceptually on an undefined future, have assumed away or ignored the continuing challenge of ongoing wars, and have done nothing to develop effective future year defense programs (FYDP) for actual future spending.

If President Trump is to rise above the failures of the two previous
Administrations, he must take a different path. It is not enough to simply spend more for one year, and there is little reason to go on assuming that the purpose of such spending should be to bring today’s forces to full readiness to meet tomorrow’s steadily evolving threats.

Facing the Entitlement, Deficit, and National Security Challenges

In some ways, the most critical challenge is the broad problem in creating an effective federal budget that properly balances civil and military needs, and spending with revenues. The United States is currently on a path where federal mandatory or “entitlement” programs—Social Security, Medicare, welfare, the Affordable Care Act, and others—are steady rising as a share of both federal spending and gross domestic product (GDP). At the same time, taxes are being cut or limited, and “discretionary” spending like defense and military aid is being cut as a share of both federal spending and GDP.

The end result is that mandatory or entitlement expenditures are becoming steadily more of a burden on federal spending and on the economy, but still do not meet known future needs. Defense spending is under intense pressure, and the federal debt and deficit continue to grow. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has warned about these trends for over a decade, and the CBO’s Budget and Economic Outlook for 2017-2027 issued on January 2017 warned that even if the Budget Control Act and defense sequestration were fully honored, there would still be a major deficit, an increasing debt, and unacceptable pressure to cut defense and other discretionary spending (p. 2).

The CBO projected that the annual deficit would increase from 3 percent of the GDP in 2017 to 5 percent in 2027, and the total debt would rise to nearly 90 percent of the GP in 2027—or from 15 trillion dollars to $25 trillion:

“At that level, debt held by the public would be the largest since 1947 and more than twice the average over the past five decades in relation to GDP… Beyond the 10-year period, if current laws remained in place, the pressures that contributed to rising deficits during the baseline period would accelerate and push debt up even more sharply. Three decades from now, for instance, debt held by the public is projected to be nearly twice as high, relative to GDP, as it is this year—and a higher percentage than any previously recorded. Such high and rising debt would have serious negative consequences for the budget and the nation:” (p. 2-3)

The recent impact on defense was summarized as follows: In total, discretionary outlays, increased in 2016 by $15 billion (or 1 percent). Defense outlays inched up by $0.4 billion (or 0.1 percent) to $584 billion last year, the first increase in nominal terms since 2011. If not for the shift in the payment date for military compensation, however, outlays would have declined again in 2016—to $580 billion. That reduction stemmed from a drop in spending for overseas contingency operations (primarily for activities in Afghanistan and related missions), which fell by roughly $5 billion, CBO estimates; other defense spending rose slightly. Measured as a share of GDP, outlays for defense totaled 3.2 percent in 2016. By comparison, as recently as 2010—when spending for overseas contingency operations was roughly $95 billion above last year’s level of about $70 billion—defense outlays totaled 4.7 percent of GDP. (p. 10)

To put this level of national defense effort in perspective, defense spending reached 8.6 percent of the GDP in 1967, at the height on the Cold War. It dropped to 4.7 percent in 1992, after the Cold War ended. It is projected to be only 3.2 percent in 2017—although many analysts place the requirement at close to 4 percent, if not more. The CBO projected defense would drop to only 2.6 percent by 2027 (p. 27).

In contrast, civil mandatory or “entitlement” problems are out of control relative to actual revenues. The CBO projected that other discretionary spending would follow a similar path, but that existing legislation would increase mandatory spending from 4.8 percent of the GDP in 1967 to 10.1 percent in 1992, 13 percent in 2017, and 15.4 percent in 2027 (p. 27). The CBO estimates that even if one ignores the cost of the Affordable Care Act, 22 percent of the total increase in federal outlays between 2017 and 2027 would come from Medicare, 29 percent would come from Social security, and 19 percent from rising interest on the federal debt—a total of 70 percent (p. 25). At the same time, the refusal to increase taxes to pay for the cost of rising mandatory programs would lead to a further increase in the deficit from 2.9 percent of the GDP to 5 percent (p. 27).

For all the partisan divisions in U.S. politics, no President, or senior serving member of Congress of either party has seriously addressed the need to bring national security spending, mandatory spending, and tax revenues into a stable and lasting balance. Most have acted as if the broader problems raised by the CBO did not really exist, and focused on defense spending, given mandatory programs, taxation, and the deficit as if they did not all interact. There has been something approaching a bipartisan consensus to never address the overall issues, but to take wildly different partisan or personal positions on given parts of the problem.

The reality is, however, that the longer the overall issues of federal spending and the deficit are not addressed, the worse the problems get: The worse critical retirement, medical, and other entitlement pressures get, and the harder it is to sustain effective defense, and to meet other current needs for federal spending.

In fairness to President Trump, he has touched in the past on the critical problems being raised by inadequate defense and civil discretionary spending, the need to reform mandatory spending and the burden taxation and the debt can create. What he has not done is tie any of these ideas together in a feasible future federal set of programs, costs, and revenue proposals—but then again, neither have his predecessors, nor any current leading member of Congress.


The Defense vs. Mandatory Spending Crisis in Overall Federal Spending and Revenues

“What Ifs” in “Never-Neverland”

The other side of this story is the failure of past Secretaries of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and other senior officials and officers in the Department of Defense to seriously address the need to restructure the way the U.S. plans and declares its strategy, to tie it to serious force and future year defense plans, and to address the need to look beyond military service parochialism and focus on key threats and missions.

Defense is one of the few areas where virtually every aspect of the Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System (PPBS) has seriously regressed both within the Pentagon and within the process of Congressional Review ever since the end of the Carter Administration. The whole concept of program budgeting introduced by Secretary McNamara has virtually died, and the Department has regressed to a reliance on line item budgeting which does little more than encourage internal resource fights that are not connected to overall priorities and strategic needs.

The so-called Future Year Defense Program (FYDP) has become little more than a budgetary bargaining chip that presents unrealistic out year budgets for four years to Congress that cannot be tied to strategic needs or realistic cost projections. There is no meaningful connection between strategy, force plans, and long-term spending projections.

The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman no longer issue annual posture statements, which used to include detailed discussion of how strategy shapes the force posture, readiness, and modernization, and how these—in turn—shape future defense budgets. The Budget Control Act has made things far worse, turning the entire budget cycle into the military equivalent of the food fight that John Belushi led in Animal House.

Perhaps worst of all, a Congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review focuses what should be an annual strategy review tied to actual force plans and budgets too far into the future, without producing any specific plans or budgets for implementation. Any review of actual U.S. defense plans and budgets shows how hard it is has been since the late 1930s to realistically shape strategy even five years into the future, and that solvable problems and tasks generally require action within the next five years. “Rolling” or constantly updated plans are critical, and long term plans are not plans or strategies at all, but useful only as “what ifs.”

The Quadrennial Defense Review does explore some interesting “what ifs,” but similar to the service long-term force plans, they almost never become real, and there are no specific goals, costs, or ties to given threats or missions. The focus on possible futures that are largely “never-neverlands,” wastes far more time and resources than they are worth.

Meeting Command and Mission Needs, Not Service Needs

Another key part of the problem that President Trump’s new national security team faces is that the basic structure of U.S. strategic and military planning is still service-driven, rather than focused on real world threats and overall mission needs. Far too often, when more money or resources are made available, it is used to meet the wish lists of the individual military services: It goes to the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and the Air Force with a compartmentalized and poorly defined slice for defense-wide activity.

Today, however, the individual military services are largely enablers for joint warfare and joint mission capability for nine different combatant commands that must deal with real world threats and requirements on an interservice basis. The challenge is not to fulfill service wish lists for more forces, more modernization, and more readiness for each service. It is rather to develop real world joint capabilities to deal with the mix of threats and allied capabilities in the following nine areas:

United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM)

United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) is responsible for military relations with African nations, the African Union and African regional security organizations. It protects and defends the interests of the United States by strengthening the defense capabilities of African nations and, in cooperation with African governments, conducts military missions that increase security while deterring and defeating a variety of transnational threats.

United States Central Command (USCENTCOM)

United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) is responsible for operations in twenty countries that fall in the “central” area of the globe: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Yemen. United States Central Command utilizes national and international partnerships to build cooperation among nations, respond to crisis, deter and defeat threats and support development that ultimately increases stability in the region.

United States European Command (USEUCOM)

United States European Command (USEUCOM) works with NATO and other partner nations to address the security and defense needs of nations in Europe and parts of the Middle East and Eurasia. EUCOM coordinates with these nations to find cooperative solutions in peace and wartime alike, to plan training missions, provide humanitarian assistance and to develop strategies for promoting peace and stability in the region.

United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM)

United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) operates in the area of responsibility encompassing the continental United States, Alaska, Mexico, Canada, portions of the Caribbean and surrounding waters. NORTHCOM is primarily responsible for civil support and homeland security and also oversees the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). It has few permanent forces and is instead assigned forces by the Secretary of Defense or the President whenever required for the execution of its missions.

United States Pacific Command (USPACOM)

United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) oversees an area of responsibility stretching from the waters of the United States west coast to the western border of India, and from Antarctica to the North Pole, encompassing 36 diverse nations. USPACOM and its partners work to promote the development of the region while cooperating to enhance security, deter aggression, respond with force when necessary and to provide humanitarian assistance.

United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM)

United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) oversees an area of responsibility encompassing 31 nations in Latin America south of Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean Sea. USSOUTHCOM works to increase the security of the United States by engaging its partners to enhance the peacekeeping abilities of the region, to promote human rights, to deter illegal activities associated with illicit trafficking and to conduct multinational military exercises designed to strengthen partnerships while developing collective capabilities.

United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM)

The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is responsible for planning for and conducting special operations. It offers direct action in the form of short duration strikes and small-scale offensives, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, civil affairs operations, counterterrorism, psychological operations, information operations, counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, security force assistance, counterinsurgency operations and any specific activities directed by the President or the Secretary of Defense.

United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM)

The United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) is headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska. It conducts global operations in partnership with other Combatant Commands, services and U.S. government agencies to deter and detect strategic attacks against the United States. USSTRATCOM is responsible for command of U.S. nuclear capabilities, space operations, global surveillance and reconnaissance, intelligence, communications, computers, global missile defense and combatting weapons of mass destruction.

United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM)

The United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) provides the Department of Defense with an aggregate of transportation capabilities and assets. Together with commercial partnerships, USTRANSCOM enables a diverse array of joint mobility missions.

The importance of any given command varies with time and the realities of war. At present, five commands have the most immediate priority. USPACOM deals with the emerging peer threat posed by China and key issues like North Korea. USCENTCOM deals with Iran and key sources of terrorism, although USAFRICOM plays a major role in counterterrorism as well. USEUCOM deals with Russia. USSTRATCOM deals with nuclear weapons, and USSOCOM has increasingly become the primary repaid deployment option. In broad terms, however, each of the nine commands is the logical key element in a modern U.S. strategy, force plan, and program budget, and—as 9/11 and the Russian seizure of Crimea showed all to clearly—priorities can change rapidly and rarely stay the same for even half a decade.

Ironically, one of the reasons that the program budgeting Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara introduced in the 1960s failed, was that he put so many forces into “general purpose forces” and tried to plan and budget on a global level. This made the category little more than “no purpose forces.”

No command structure will ever predict future needs and priorities perfectly, but the commands provide far better basis for strategy than are the military services. In fact, one wonders if the services should be eventually reduced from the Secretary level to the Undersecretary level, and whether the chief of each military service should be reduced by one star to make it clear that they perform an enabling role for the commands, the Joint chiefs, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The commands are the most logical way to integrate actual military operations into plans, programs, and budget as well. The current use of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding as if it could be divorced from overall command activity and PPBS activity, and treating decade-plus wars as temporary aberrations in “baseline” spending is as absurd as the fact the United States no longer seems to even be able to fully analyze and publically report on the actual cost of its wars. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen are not the “stepchildren” of the U.S. military; they are the living core of its fundamental purpose for existing. The operational dimension is critical, and should be fully integrated into U.S. strategy and every aspect of the planning and budgeting process.

Focusing on the commands also provides a way of tying strategy and planning to key threats, and defining strategic partnerships in productive terms—rather than simply focusing on burden sharing. The current defense guidance calling for global rebalancing is precisely the kind of vague goal the United States does not need, and plans, programs, and budgets that only discuss U.S. forces ignore both the advantages and limits of U.S. power.

More generally, the commands provide a far better base for planning strategic partnerships, and the kind of civil-military operations that have proved critical in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Here, better planning of such efforts will be a clear warning of the dangers of making radical cuts in State Department aid spending and other efforts, regardless of the military consequences, and of not giving strategic partners the right priority in overall strategy and defense planning, programming, and budgeting.

Inheriting a Broken Mess: The Need for Real Strategies that Have Real Plans, Programs, and Budgets

It is far from clear how many of these challenges President Trump’s national security team can actually take on, and all too clear that the most critical challenge involves a fundamental rebalancing of mandatory and discretionary programs, and revenues and expenditures that goes far beyond national security

What is even clearer, however, is that simply spending more on defense—and meeting the goals set by the military services—is not enough. Far more fundamental reforms are needed in the U.S. approach to national security. The test of the Trump presidency will not be whether it spends more on defense. It will be whether the President and his team can fix a broken system, and shape a strategy that will actually tie planning, programming, and budgeting together in ways that meet the nation’s real national security needs.