Clad in an olive-green flight jacket, President Trump strode onto the sprawling flight deck of the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier docked off of Newport News, Va., calling the new $12.9-billion ship an emblem for his plans to pump $54 billion into the military.
“It is a monument to American might that will provide the strength necessary to ensure peace,” he told a cheering crowd of uniformed sailors and Marines this week.
Yet even as Trump invokes former President Reagan’s “peace through strength” doctrine, few in the military policy community know what Trump really wants to do with the proposed 10% annual budget increase or what vision he holds for the armed forces.
Though Trump repeatedly has called for a military buildup, he spent much of his campaign promising to pull back from the type of expensive commitments and endeavors that would require such a large expansion. He pledged an “America First” policy and complained bitterly that trillions of dollars spent fighting wars in the Middle East could have been used to rebuild the homeland.
“This is a fairly raw grab for money,” said Gordon Adams, a senior budget official for national security under President Clinton who worked on the issue for President Obama’s transition after the 2008 election. “It is based largely on symbolism.”
Trump floated some spending ideas promoted by a conservative think tank during his campaign, including troop increases of more than 100,000. And the military has several costly projects that could put the cash to use. But if Trump really wants to force allies in Europe and Asia to shoulder more of their own defense burden — as he asserted during the campaign — he may not need all these projects, analysts say.
“This is a strategy-budget mismatch within the Trump administration,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “A lot of the rhetoric suggests he wants to do less, but in the budget says he wants to do more. Which is it?”
Trump’s discourse on the topic has vexed observers. During the campaign, Trump called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization designed to protect European allies “obsolete” and demanded repeatedly that member nations pay a larger share of their defense expenses. He made similar demands of Japan and other Asian allies. He also criticized both Democrats and Republicans for spending trillions of dollars on operations in the Middle East and southwest Asia.
“If I become president, the era of nation-building will be brought to a very swift and decisive end,” he said during an August policy address in Ohio.
At the same time, Trump has called for a bigger military that can “start winning wars again.”
Meanwhile, Trump has repeatedly said he wants to limit foreign engagement in order to avoid costly ground wars but believes a more muscular military will deter foes.
“Hopefully, it’s power we don’t have to use,” Trump said aboard the aircraft carrier Thursday, praising the ship’s size and strength. “But if we do, they’re in big, big trouble.”
He backed NATO more strongly in an address to Congress on Tuesday night, adding further complications to his ambitions.
Trump has compared his “peace through strength” mantra to Reagan’s. But Reagan engaged deeply in the world stage during the Cold War. And today’s threats from Russia, China and non-state terrorist organizations differ from the singular threat posed by the former Soviet Union, which was met by a long-term deterrence strategy. The U.S. already has the world’s strongest and costliest military.
“Does a larger military deter ISIS? I don’t think so,” Harrison said, using an acronym for the Islamic State militant group.
Harrison said that Trump’s recent embrace of NATO coupled with his spending plans for the Pentagon could mean that Trump, whose Cabinet is stocked with former generals, is shifting toward more engagement in the world.
Obama, who held a more traditional foreign policy view, also requested more money to rebuild the military, though not as much as Trump, and demanded that it be coupled with increases in domestic spending.
Trump’s $54 billion request is viewed by many as an opening bid. Analysts expect Congress will indeed increase the Pentagon’s budget, though no one knows the final number.
Hawks in the GOP, led by Arizona Sen. John McCain, have said Trump is not spending enough.
“The U.S. Army has spent the last 16 years fighting terrorists and guerrillas,” said Loren Thompson, the chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, who shares McCain’s view. “It just doesn’t have the items it needs to fight a tank war or an air war against the Russians in Europe. Its tanks need to be upgraded. Its air defenses need to be better. It needs to be able to counter Russian” cyber-attacks.
The extent of the needs would be the subject of fierce debate under any circumstances. Though many Democrats would also like to spend more on the military, they and many Republicans would be unlikely to go along with Trump’s demand that it be paid for with sharp cuts to domestic programs that protect the environment, help local communities and serve the poor. Some conservative Republicans may resist attempts to spend more money on any government programs.
Defense Secretary James Mattis is expected to complete a spending plan outlining specific needs over the next few months. He will have plenty of options.
The Pentagon is headlong into the decade-long process of developing a new stealth bomber, dubbed the B-21 Raider, and replacing the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. The Air Force late last year started assessments of a new intercontinental ballistic missile.
The cost of the modernization is estimated to approach $1 trillion over the next 30 years, with much of it coming within the next decade.
The Navy completed an assessment late last year that concluded it needed to increase the current fleet size to 355 in order to meet the rising number of mission requirements across the globe. The Navy would have to spend $25 billion a year for 30 years to reach that goal, according to a Congressional Budget Office report released last month.
The Navy currently has 274 ships in its inventory, which includes 11 carriers once the Gerald R. Ford joins the fleet. It last had 350 ships in 1998, when it also had 12 carriers. The decrease is due in part to advancing technologies and capabilities, but also rising costs of maintaining the ships.