A closer look at McCain's proposed defense budget

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCindy McCain says husband John McCain would be 'disgusted' by state of GOP Meghan McCain to Trump Jr. on 'The View': 'You and your family have hurt a lot of people' Trump Jr. defends father on 'The View': He's 'controversial,' but 'took on the establishment' MORE (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has joined President Donald Trump in calling for $50 billion a year, or about 10 percent, increase above projected levels of defense spending in the defense budget. Like the new president, McCain claims that President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal 3 ways government can help clean up Twitter MORE has not proposed defense budgets sufficient to meet current threats.

Under McCain’s plan, the Army would add 8,000 troops a year, bringing its size to 500,000, while the Marine Corp would add 3,000 individuals to its ranks, bringing the size of the Marines to 200,000. McCain’s plan would also build 59 ships over the next five years (as opposed to the 40 the Navy currently plans); 73 additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for the Air Force and 20 extra for the Marines; and an additional 58 F/A-18 Super Hornets and 16 E/A-16G Growlers for the Navy.

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However, like the Trump proposal, McCain’s assessment of the current state of our armed forces and the amount that President Obama has spent on defense is incorrect. The U.S. defense budget currently accounts for more than one-third of the world’s total military expenditures, and our allies account for another one-third. As experts like General David Petraus and Michael O’Hanlon have said, the current state of our armed forces is “awesome”.

Moreover, the $618 billion defense budget, even with the limits imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, is higher in real terms than the U.S. spent on average in the Cold War and at the height of the Reagan buildup. Even if one controls for inflation, President Obama spent more on defense in his eight years in office than President George W. Bush did in his. 

To be fair, McCain’s plan does make some good points, which the Trump administration and Congress should consider as they formulate the FY 2018 Budget. These can be placed into four categories:

First, the Navy should develop a high-low mix of air craft carriers by building smaller conventionally powered carriers, not simply continuing to only build $15 billion nuclear powered Ford class super carriers. Second, the Air Force needs to reduce the total number of F-35s that it plans to buy from its projected level of 1,732, which McCain correctly claims is unrealistic. Third, the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), or war fighting budget—half of which funds items having nothing to do with the wars in the Middle East or in Afghanistan—should be shifted into the regular budget when the Budget Control Act is repealed. Fourth, the senator proposes stopping production of the poorly conceived and managed Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) at 28, as opposed to the Navy’s goal of 52.

Before the administration and Congress add additional funds to the $618 billion the Pentagon currently spends, they need to take a look at how the Pentagon is actually spending its funds. And OCO funding should be moved into base funding for everything that is not a real contingency before Congress approves any increases to the DoD topline.

This is difficult for all administrations regardless of political party. For example, in a recent report that the outgoing leadership in the Pentagon tried to bury, the Defense Business Board claimed that the Pentagon could save $125 billion over the next five years by cutting the size of its administrative force. If it just marches ahead with spending increases, the Trump administration will contribute to bloat and waste, not curb it.

As McCain has noted, he could “provide a long list of programs and cost overruns with these programs and even failures completely of various programs for the past ten years.” President TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem MORE himself has noted on several occasions that the F-35 program is completely out of control – something that is true but not managed by tweets.

The new administration can cancel programs like the new land based missile and air launched cruise missile programs. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright have both said these programs are unnecessary. Moreover, the mixed oxide facility (or MOX) that was supposed to cost between one and two billion dollars is now estimated to cost at least $50 billion.

These are just a few of the ways in which America can maximize the bang it gets for its defense buck. No matter how much the U.S. spends on defense, it cannot buy perfect security. And while the military services would always like more troops, equipment, and training, our current level of spending is more than adequate and, if well managed, will ensure that our armed forces remain “awesome”.

Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as assistant secretary of defense and is a retired Navy captain.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.