How Trump’s defense priorities will differ greatly from previous administrations'
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President Trump announced this week that he was adding a whopping 10 percent to the Pentagon’s half-trillion dollar annual budget. Many in the defense community think that Team Trump — like Team Reagan — will convince the Congress to spend the money to fix nearly all of the Department’s shortcomings.

As in the early 1980s, today’s optimists believe that the current administration will cure what ails defense in the next four to eight years.

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Sadly, there isn’t enough money to do all that the president would like to do, while simultaneously maintaining entitlements, repairing infrastructure and cutting taxes. Aside from the damage to the State Department and other discretionary funding programs, the resulting debt will be economically and politically intolerable.

 

Hard choices are inevitable, if we are to maintain a balanced force, ready across the spectrum of potential conflict.

The security environment is a tough one. Fifteen years ago, we only had to focus on al Qaeda and its associated adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, our focus has to be on five different threats; Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and two major brands of radical Islamic terrorists. In addition to fighting terrorists and conduction operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, Team Mattis will have to spend a lot more money on high-tech conventional, nuclear and antimissile defense programs.

Clearly, the Pentagon will have to find areas to economize. The key to economizing is a detailed assessment of what’s essential and what’s less — or not at all — important. Here are a few things that are less important than we might think.

Leading off the list of things we can bypass is more strategic nuclear weapons. While the Russians may have more than we do, strategic deterrence and our retaliatory capability are secure. 

Money for readiness and safety improvements is a far better investment than buying more bombs or missiles. New arms control efforts with Russia and China could possibly be money savers, as well. In the long run, shifting from a triad — bombers, land-based missiles and sea-based missiles — to a robust diad may be a key to major savings. But triad or diad, what’s needed in the nuclear domain is readiness, reliability, safety and a whole lot of new thinking.

Another questionable priority for all of the services is more manpower.

The Army and Marines are eager for more people to flesh out their formations. The Navy and Air Force are hungry for more people to man (or woman) their inventories of equipment. At the same time that the services call for more people, they are wailing about readiness. High pay and benefits, coupled with high operational costs, have left the services short of funds for maintenance and training. Fifteen years of war have also created equipment shortages and unusual maintenance requirements. The Marine Corps, for example, recently complained that 75 percent of its older F/A–18 Hornet fighters were not combat ready. Only a handful of the Army’s stateside brigades are ready for combat.

If one has to choose, it would be better to maintain a smaller force that is fully ready than to hollow out the existing force. We need more people in all of the services, but that should take second place to fixing readiness of the forces that we have. More readiness must come before more people.

Manned fighter aircraft is an area ripe for potential savings. The F–35 has become the fighter aircraft of choice for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The F–35 Joint Strike Fighter is incredibly expensive: between $102 and $132 million dollars per copy, and that’s with manufacturer Lockheed Martin claiming that its production costs have gone down by 60 percent. The program has had so many problems and cost overruns that President Trump recently pressed the manufacturer to lower the price. 

At the same time, the F–35 is facing a fierce air defense environment in nearly all of our potential adversaries. Thick air defenses could cause catastrophic loss rates, unseen since World War II. 

We could do much better if we cut back on the buy for the F–35 and invested more in cheaper, penetrating, unmanned or autonomous aerial vehicles. Thanks mainly to the Congress, the Air Force is working on new, low-tech, close air support aircraft, a very useful addition to its otherwise gold-plated inventory.

The obstacles to moving away from familiar systems to other types of systems are the sunk cost mentality, service parochialism and program support across the Congress. Worst of all is an unimaginative approach to innovation. 

The Air Force and Navy in particular are wedded to the model that item “x” must be replaced by item “y,” which is an improved version of item “x” but at a much higher cost. You will never build up the inventory if you insist on a fleet of F–35s or $3 billion destroyers. Together, today’s U.S. manned aviation and shipbuilding programs are the monster that is devouring the Pentagon. 

We need to focus on what’s really important: force readiness; the potential for great power conflict; stealth systems; cyber offense and defense; special operations forces; drones or, more accurately, unmanned or autonomous aerial systems; as well as counter-drone defenses. 

For balance, the Army and Marine Corps — the bleeding services — need to improve their overmatch capability against peer competitors. They will need more money and better equipment to do that.

To make up for shortfalls in spending, we will have to use common sense and our secret weapon: diplomacy. American diplomats can lower adversary threat perceptions, shore up our alliances, and even negotiate arms reductions, but not if we drastically cut their already small budget. We can have a better defense program but not unless we prioritize.

Joseph J. Collins is the director of the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University. A retired Army colonel and a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense, he has written two books on war in Afghanistan. The opinions here are his own and not necessarily those of NDU, the Department of Defense, or any other government entity.


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