Support for the military requires more than a fine speech

Support for the military requires more than a fine speech
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussian sanctions will boomerang States, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press MORE boasted in his State of the Union address that he has rebuilt the American military, invested “a record-breaking $2.2 trillion on the American military,” and “purchased the finest planes, missiles, rockets, ships and every other form of military equipment.” He pointed out that he has created a Space Force. He promised to continue the fight against Islamist terrorism, reminding the nation that American forces killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And he promised, yet again, to end “America’s longest war” in Afghanistan.

Trump also promised that Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro’s “grip on tyranny” would be “smashed,” but did not specify how this might take place. He did not mention Russia and China as the two major threats that his National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy have identified. Nor did he refer to North Korea’s nuclear threat. And other than taking credit for the killing of Iran’s Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani, he had little more to say about the threat that Iran poses to its neighbors and to American interests. Yet it is against those threats that defense spending and posture should be measured, and it is difficult to see how the president’s defense budget provides sufficient wherewithal to defend against them.

Both the Army and Navy leaders claim that they are not receiving sufficient funding to meet their modernization objectives. The Army seeks additional funding, especially to expand its unmanned systems, but also to support the forces that must continue to battle Islamist terrorists in Africa, Asia and the Middle East and additional units to deter Russian adventurism in Europe and Chinese aggression in Asia. Having previously suffered from a string of failed modernization programs, however, the Army hardly helped itself when it cancelled its $45 billion program for a follow-on to the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle.

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The Navy faces the challenge of meeting the president’s desired goal of 355 ships by 2030 while also funding both its program to replace its Trident ballistic missile submarine force and to build Ford class aircraft carriers at a cost of about $15 billion for each ship. The Air Force also faces a budget crunch. It must fund the new B-21 bomber, even as it continues to acquire F-35 fighters and other aircraft, while also providing resources to support the new Space Force. 

It is not at all clear that the services’ funding needs will be met. For that reason, America’s reliance on allied contributions to the common defense is probably more urgent than ever. President Trump boasted that he has pressured America’s NATO allies to increase their spending by $400 billion. On the other hand, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, stated in December 2019 that the Allies have added $160 billion since 2016. Even if one accepts Trump’s much larger number, when it is divided among 28 allies and spent over a period of several years, it does not represent a major step forward. 

Whether the NATO allies would increase their contributions still further is an open question, however. Although the president has ceased to belittle NATO, his mercurial policies have alienated many of the alliance’s member states. So, too, have his ongoing threats to impose tariffs on the European Union, to which 21 NATO states belong. It should therefore come as no surprise that there is little enthusiasm for expanding whatever commitments NATO states have made.

The potential for additional allied support is only marginally better in Asia. Japan has made the greatest strides in modernizing its forces, and has increased its defense budgets in each of the past eight years, but it still commits only about 1 percent of its gross domestic product to defense expenditures. Other East Asian states have increased their defense spending — notably Vietnam and Malaysia, but neither country is an American treaty ally.

Finally, despite Trump’s repeated promises to withdraw from the Middle East, it is not at all clear when — and to what extent — such a withdrawal might take place. Actually, the opposite has occurred. As a result of ongoing tensions with Iran, the president committed an additional 12,500 troops to the region. In what can only be called an ironic twist, American forces are back in Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid Air Base after an absence of 16 years, with no date set for their departure.

The president’s commitment to the military is quite genuine, and he certainly waxed eloquent in his State of the Union speech when he referred to America’s fighting men and women. But words are not enough. Unless the White House is prepared both to increase defense spending and to back the confidence of longstanding allies, America’s forces, capable as they are, will be stretched to the limit as they are forced to confront major, ongoing threats in Europe, East Asia and, for some time to come, the Middle East.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.