The election of Donald Trump initially seemed to be a lifeline to an American military suffering from unrelenting budget cuts—a loss of more than $250 billion in spending power from the 2009 budget alone—and an equally punishing pace of operations. The morning after the election, Forbes magazine confidently predicted the restoration of at least $500 billion in defense spending.
Not only did Trump promise to make America great again, but in September, he gave a rousing speech outlining a Reagan-like rearmament: a 540,000-soldier active-duty Army, from its current strength of 470,000; a 350-ship Navy, from a current level of 280; hundreds of new tactical aircraft for the Air Force; and a renewed national missile defense network. In a notable deviation from his otherwise expert-free campaign, candidate Trump quoted the blue-ribbon National Defense Panel, a bipartisan group of former senior officers and civilian national security officials, arguing for a return to the last defense budget crafted by Secretary Robert Gates. Trump’s credibility was enhanced by the recommendation to eliminate the “sequestration” provision of the 2011 Budget Control Act, which, as he emphasized, disproportionately put the burden of deficit reduction on defense accounts.
Early Trump cabinet moves seemed to confirm the prospects for a military revival. Nominating Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general rather than secretary of defense removed one potential obstacle; a budget hawk, Sessions prides himself as a man who “regularly stands guard” to fight government “waste, fraud, and abuse,” which he believes is rife in the Pentagon. Retired Marine Corps general James Mattis, whom Trump picked to run the Pentagon, can be expected to be frank in advancing the military’s resource requirements.
But the choice of South Carolina congressman Mick Mulvaney to run the Office of Management and Budget sours the apparently rosy scenario. Mulvaney has been among the most dedicated budget-cutters of the 2010 “Freedom Caucus” class of Republicans, willing to make common cause with far-left Democrats such as Barney Frank in offering anti-defense-spending amendments. His particular bêtes noires are the supplemental appropriations, known as “overseas contingency operations” (OCO) funds, that pay for the annual costs of fighting multiple wars. Yet as defense needs have become desperate, even the Obama administration has embraced this backdoor way of financing national security. To Mulvaney, this OCO approach is nothing but a “slush fund,” one that “it’s past time to do away with.”
Trump, too, seems to believe the Pentagon is polluted by waste, fraud, and abuse, at least if his tweets about the costs of the F-35 or the program to replace Air Force One mean anything. Also, the Trump transition team is said to be a-twitter over a recent Washington Post story alleging a “cover-up” of a report recommending management reforms for the Defense Department. The newspaper account was a vaporous blend of inaccuracies and innuendo but reinforced every budget hawk’s darkest conspiracy theories. To cite just one example of many, the Post insisted the study had been “buried” and removed from the Pentagon website. In fact, it was available from July 2015 to April 2016 through the business board’s website and remains available through the Defense Technical Information Center—a simple Google search away.
Trump may have gotten a taste of defense-budget reality in the course of meetings with the chiefs of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the prime contractors for the two programs targeted in Trump’s tweets, and the manager of the F-35 program, Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan. Bogdan has ridden herd on the F-35 effort for several years, earning a reputation for tough negotiating and discipline; one hopes he did the same with Trump. And in his post-meeting statement, the president-elect sounded a more realistic, less bombastic note about the plane’s price tag.
Still, Trump has wanted to have it both ways when it comes to new investments and budget reductions. The campaign defense speech fits this pattern: It specified a thoroughgoing defense reinvestment plan but was silent in projecting the cost. And it, too, included a litany of promises for defense reform and government-wide savings to “fully offset” any new defense spending. It was, at best, an uncertain trumpet.
Those in the Pentagon with longer memories have heard this before. In the 2000 presidential campaign, vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney promised the military that “help [was] on the way.” But George W. Bush’s OMB had other ideas. Budgetary help never arrived, not in the Bush years—when most every additional penny of defense spending went to pay the costs of the wars rather than the modernization or expansion of a force that was too small to begin with—nor of course during Obama’s tenure. Instead, Pentagon leaders have taken to dreaming about the distant future, be it under the guise of Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of “defense transformation” or Ashton Carter’s “third offset.”
Yet another bait-and-switch would have severe consequences, not just for the physical well-being of America’s armed forces but their psyches as well. Over the past generation, people in uniform have either been fighting for their lives while deployed or “making do with less” when at home station. Few in uniform today have ever experienced a true “build-up” of military power of the Reagan sort; the weaponry of that era may still exist, but the experience is gone.
Eventually, even Charlie Brown gets jaded when Lucy holds the football. He expects her to snatch it away and laugh. It makes for a charming cartoon but is an especially cavalier way to reward a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard