US Navy ships taking part in the 2014 RIMPAC exercise. Photo: US Navy via AFP

One of the first things you learn as a parent is never to let a child determine his or her own allowance. No matter what, it will never be enough. The same goes for the US military. If you ask it, “How much do you need?” it will always come up with more requirements and more programs that require, well, more money. It is a bottomless pit of demands.

Fair enough – it’s a cardinal law of bureaucracies to want to increase their responsibilities, size and power. In the case of the US military, it is up to the president and Congress to tell it what its limits are.

Sadly, civilian leaders in the US do a lousy job of standing up to uniformed officers. Call it deference, call it timidity, but when a four-star with a chest full of fruit salad (denoting actual heroism) stands up and tells a politician (for example, President Donald Trump, who used a variety of dubious deferments to avoid military service) what the US military absolutely, critically needs, that person usually caves. The same goes for most civilians in Washington.

Budget season

Why do we care now? In the first place, February-March is the timeframe when the administration compiles its budget request for next fiscal year (FY2020). After increasing defense spending in 2018 by 10%, to US$700 billion, Trump then raised it again 2019, to $716 billion. This is higher, in real (after accounting for inflation) terms, than was ever spent during the Cold War, and only slightly less than when the US was waist-deep in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Next year is likely to be another boom year for the US military. After floating the idea of a cut in military spending back down to $700 billion, the howls of protest from the Pentagon forced Trump to reverse course; now it is anticipated that the FY2020 budget request for defense will be around $750 billion, roughly a 4.7% increase.

We’ve seen this movie before

Such manipulation by the Pentagon is hardly new. An old friend and former boss, Dr Gordon Adams, who was the senior White House budget officer for national security under president Bill Clinton, recounted his own squabbles with the US military in Foreign Policy on February 15, 2018 (“The military’s ‘readiness’ scam worked again”):

“The brass was displeased with the budget levels set by the Bill Clinton administration and whined about readiness problems to the Office of Management and Budget, where I worked. My follow-up with the Pentagon’s civil servants made it clear that the measures they were using were rigged to show low levels of readiness; they set standards that called units ‘ready’ only if they had every capability imaginable to fight a major ground war, and they counted as ‘unready’ units that were back from deployments and had missed a training slot for that big war, one they would soon be scheduled to receive.

“We knew the Pentagon was using manipulated numbers to bludgeon us with demands for more funding. Nevertheless, we caved: In 1994, we added more than $20 billion to the defense budget, not really to fix readiness but to try to make the issue go away….”

Then he added, we’ve “seen this movie many times before.”

Trump: spending more but doing less

The bottom line with the US military is that we are always spending too little. OK, but the problem is, if Trump wants to do less militarily, then he should spend less.

The US is a global power and therefore needs to have global reach. This means a constellation of overseas bases and large numbers of forces deployed overseas. In the case of Asia, this means nearly 50,000 troops in Japan and 28,500 in South Korea, along with access to bases in Singapore, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand, and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. It also means having forces that are capable of long-range power projection, including a 10-carrier blue-water US Navy, a ready-to-go US Marine Corps, and a US Air Force with sizable long-range bombing and airlift capacities.

But now Trump wants to pull back from the world stage. He wants to bring troops home from Syria and from Afghanistan. He has threatened drawdowns in South Korea and canceled joint military exercises with the Koreans, calling them “provocative war games.”

Just as bad, he has denigrated nearly every alliance that the United States has, particularly NATO. He has disparaged the Europeans as “free riders” on the US meal ticket, insinuating that the Europeans somehow “owe” the US money. Moreover, he has in the past called into doubt his commitment to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which commits all NATO nations to come to the defense of any member-state that is attacked.

Fish or cut bait

The bottom line is, if Trump seriously wants to pull the US back from the world stage, he has no reason to fund a large military. For example, if the US Navy is only going to patrol the waters closest to US shores, then the US doesn’t need a 355-ship navy, or a dozen (or even 13, as some have called for) aircraft carriers; the Cato Institute thinks the navy could be reduced to just eight carriers. Moreover, if the US is going to become truly homeland-defense-oriented, it doesn’t require a sizable ground force (this entails cutting the beloved Marine Corps), while the country’s nuclear arsenal could also be reduced.

None of these actions would seriously imperil US national security – if Trump is serious about reducing US roles and commitments around the world. As usual, he seems to want it both ways. He wants a large military because size matters to him: A large military means “raw power” and is therefore an end in itself. On the other hand, he doesn’t appear inclined to want to use it much.

And while Trump dithers, America’s global standing continues to circle the drain.

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