Donald Trump has a plan to make America broke again.
The Republican presidential nominee rolled out a series of billion-dollar military proposals in Philadelphia Wednesday—but his costly plans to balloon the size of the Defense Department seem to ignore the $19 trillion debt he rails about in his stump speeches.
Trump even found himself at odds with his first major national security address in April, when he lamented that “our resources are totally over extended”—and blamed President Obama’s administration for making the United States weaker through wasteful spending and massive debt.
But it wasn’t a contradiction Trump was eager to alleviate now. Like a foreign policy hawk’s Santa Claus, Trump handed out billion-dollar presents to the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps like trivial candy canes.
And as for how he would pay for it? Who knows.
For Trump’s multi-billion-dollar military expansion to happen, the Budget Control Act of 2011, which, in part, cut $487 billion from defense spending over the next 10 years, would have to disappear, something that Congressional gridlock makes utterly unlikely.
Most importantly, Trump never indicated what threat his burgeoning military would answer. And for military planners, that perhaps is the least appealing prospect of all. Will the bigger military go after ISIS? Does a bigger force portend of more ground wars? And if there is no plan to use the bigger military, will the expansion eventually be cut?
“We have the greatest people in the world. We have to give them the greatest equipment. Under Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, defense spending is on track to fall to its lowest level as a share of the economy since the end of World War II,” Trump said Wednesday.
Trump complained that the Navy is smaller than any time since 1917 and the Army is smaller than any time since the 1940s, an issue that was visited in the 2012 presidential campaign by Mitt Romney.
But the size of the force is an imperfect measure: the United States has far more advanced technology now than ever before—the military can accomplish more things with a small number of assets.
The last Defense Department review, in which the Pentagon spells out threats the military should be prepared for every four years, said the United States should be agile for several kinds of threats around the world but no longer calls for a military ready to fight two simultaneous ground forces. The only time Trump talked about expanded warfare was when he proposed the U.S. conduct more aggressive offensive cyber campaigns. And cyberwarfare doesn’t need more boots on the ground.
And while, on the face of it, the U.S. military should be thrilled at the prospect of more ships, personnel, and aircraft, many top officials fear expanding to a force no one can afford.
At a June speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, for example, Gen. Mark Milley, the Army’s most senior officer, said that spending beyond America’s means could have even more disastrous effects than having a slightly smaller Army.
“I don’t have a problem with more troops. I’d welcome more troops. I think that would be a good thing, if, and only if, there was sufficient money to maintain those troops’ readiness. Therein lies the tension,” Milley said. To do otherwise “would actually decrease readiness and begin to hollow out the force. And that is not a direction we want to go.”
The last time the U.S. Army was at Trump’s proposed 540,000 figure was in 2008, when the U.S. had roughly 150,000 troops in Iraq and 30,000 in Afghanistan. The United States paid for its wars through supplemental budgets—which have been criticized by deficit hawks ever since.
To be sure, Trump is right when he points out that the Air Force and Navy, in particular, are comprised of aging fleets, creating costs like planes and ships that spend more time getting repaired and less time in service. But, expanding the size of the Navy and Air Force’s fleet would likely be even more costly and, if not paid for in the defense budget, cut into other areas of the force, officials said.
Ultimately, Trump has laid out a gold-plated military proposal—but without identifying exactly why it would be necessary or how the United States would be able to afford it.
"We will make America strong again, we will make America safe again, and we will make America great again—greater than ever before," Trump bragged, as he finished his speech in Wednesday.
How he'll pay for it—well, that will have to wait for another speech.