Trump Says Costs Be Damned as He Moves on Major Defense Buildup
Policy + Politics

Trump Says Costs Be Damned as He Moves on Major Defense Buildup

© Carlos Barria / Reuters

President Trump declared last week that in seeking an historic buildup in the U.S. military and missile defense, money is no object to him. “I want a balanced budget eventually,” he told Sean Hannity of Fox News. “But I want to have a strong military. To me, that’s much more important than anything.”

Trump took a first major step towards making good on his campaign pledge to boost defense spending with the issuance last Friday of an executive order. In it, the Republican commander-in-chief instructed newly installed Defense Secretary James Mattis to conduct a 30-day “readiness review” to examine needs in the ongoing war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq as well as training, equipment maintenance, modernization, and infrastructure, as The Washington Post reported.

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More broadly, Trump has asked Mattis for a comprehensive plan within two months to improve overall readiness in the armed services by fiscal 2019, including updating the nuclear arsenal and strengthening defenses against the possibility of a nuclear missile attack by North Korea, Iran or some other adversaries.

Trump complained during the 2016 presidential campaign that former President Barack Obama had dangerously depleted the armed services – especially the Navy – as he gradually disengaged the U.S. from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last week Trump promised a “great rebuilding” of the armed forces – in some cases returning to levels not seen since the Reagan administration of the 1980s -- to ensure that the sacrifices of the military “are supported by the actions of our government.”

Last September, Trump’s campaign outlined a highly ambitious military buildup plan that he is now attempting to push through Congress. It includes raising the number of active Army troops from 475,000 to 540,000, boosting the number of Marine battalions from 24 to 36, expanding the naval fleet from a planned 280 to 350 and increasing the number of Air Force fighter aircraft by 100 to at least 1,200. 

The president also called for modernizing the nation’s missile defense system and cybersecurity, in the wake of North Korea’s aggressive efforts to develop a long-range nuclear-tipped missile that could reach the West Coast of the United States and beyond.

Trump at the time promised to find some savings in other parts of the budget to help pay for his proposed military buildup, but it is far more likely that much of the new spending will simply be added to the debt. In order to do that, however, Congress will have to lift the discretionary spending caps on defense that was imposed under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

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The BCA caps on defense and non-defense spending   will last until 2021 unless Congress and the new president decide to change them. Currently, they call for a $609.9 billion limit on defense spending and a $533.4 billion limit on non-defense programs in fiscal 2017.  The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has cautioned that lifting the defense spending caps alone would add $450 billion to the federal debt over the coming decade.

The issue will come to a head in late April, when stop-gap spending authority to keep the government running expires and Congress must approve a final spending bill for defense and domestic programs through the remainder of fiscal 2017, which runs through September 30.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), a strong supporter of Trump’s military buildup, said last week that lifting the spending caps on defense will be a top priority of Congress this spring.  And Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ) declared over the weekend that Trump’s drive for a military buildup is an important step in reasserting U.S. military dominance and discouraging further military aggression and meddling in U.S. political affairs by Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

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“I believe that peace through strength is an answer, and I’m glad President Trump has committed to rebuilding our military,” McCain said during an appearance Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program. “That’s one of our first priorities if we’re going to deal on an equal basis with Vladimir Putin.”

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), Trump’s choice to head the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), testified last week before the Senate Budget Committee that he supports Trump's call for increased defense spending, even if it adds to the deficit. 

Mulvaney, a Tea Party Republican who has long fought to reduce defense spending, at one time was thought to be a fly in the ointment in Trump’s call for lifting the caps. But he said during his confirmation hearing that he would focus instead on reforming Pentagon personnel policies to try to hold down costs.