Shortly after the presidential election, USNI News ran a piece looking forward into a U.S. military under a Trump administration.
The report pieced together statements from Trump that may represent his outline for what he often stated was a need to “rebuild the military.” Briefly summarized, Trump’s plan would result in 50 new ships for the U.S. Navy, a 33-percent growth in the size of the Marine Corps, and 50,000 additional soldiers for the Army.
These campaign trail statements are far from being implemented as policy, but they indicate a “bigger is better” approach to national defense. Three problems with this sketchbook policy estimation are readily apparent: the purpose, the price, and the risks of implementing such a policy.
At first glance, the immediate questions that emerge are: what strategic purpose is this amount of military power meant to serve? Whom are we trying to deter, or prepare to fight? Trump’s proposals represent a Cold War level of defense spending, military hardware acquisition, and force structure. It would logically seem directed at some perceived, but as of yet unnamed, threat. While that threat was clearly delineated in the Cold War, it is less so at present. Based on the lack of a clear and present danger that would require the world’s most powerful military to become significantly larger, the best answer to the purpose of this possible policy would likely be found in the perceived power of deterrence. The bigger-equals-better approach seems to rest on the belief that such extraordinary military power offers a guarantee of national security.
History says otherwise. Just consider the value of overwhelming military power in these examples. First, on Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacked the United States with an order of battle that consisted of 19 terrorists armed with box cutters, and four hijacked aircraft. The entire 9-11 operation is estimated to have cost al Qaeda $300,000 to $400,000 and, as correctly noted by President-elect Trump during his recent 60 Minutes interview, “we’ve spent $6 trillion in the Middle East” reacting to these attacks.
Despite overwhelming military superiority since day one, the U.S. is still in Afghanistan and Iraq, where advanced laser-guided weapons, Air Force B-1 bombers, the world’s best special forces, and every conceivable military advantage has not been able to deter or destroy our determined enemies to give up the fight.
Consider the fact that in 2001, when al Qaeda started a war with the U.S., it was not impressed by the fact that the U.S. had 12 Carrier Battle Groups, a nuclear triad capable of destroying the planet and a rapid response airborne force. If the U.S. had a military twice as large then, or now, it still would not matter to the persistent enemies America has confronted in the past 15 years of fighting radical Islamic terrorists. There are countless examples of frustrated great powers that are unable to defeat asymmetric foes. These examples include our own Revolutionary War, Vietnam, and the Soviets in Afghanistan, to name just a few.
The lesson is simple enough – the side with the most weapons and soldiers does not always win. The war theorist Carl von Clausewitz describes the danger of comparing figures of strength and concluding that will be enough to determine a path victory. He states, “that would be a kind of war by algebra.” Clausewitz repeatedly emphasizes the role of human passions, emotions, and the play of chance in war. America’s frustrations fighting radical Islamic terrorists around the globe for the past 15 years serve only to underscore this timeless strategic truth.
As often noted, the U.S. already spends more on defense than the next 10 nations below them on the top defense spenders list, and eight of those nations are allies of the U.S. Since America has always fought foreign conflicts with the help of allies, their combined defense capabilities add a cumulative effect to U.S. power. This is true with Japan, South Korea, NATO and many others. Many of our allies have capable, unique, and meaningful military power. This is a plus-factor that few of our potential adversaries can count on. In any major conflict, it will be them against the U.S. and many of its capable allies.
A price tag for this imagined strengthening of the American military might was not offered, but based on the current price of a Ford-class carrier (about $15 billion), a Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer ($4.5 billion), a single round of ammo for the DDG-1000 ($800,000) and an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (average cost of $251 million per aircraft), the price tag would clearly be in the trillions for lifetime cost when manning, training, and maintenance costs are added in. Thus, a real concern of this possible policy is the extraordinary price. A price that might be justified by an existential threat, like World War II or the Cold War but is at present difficult to rationalize.
Does President-elect Trump envision a new near-peer threat emerging that might respond better to conventional deterrence than non-state terrorist organizations that we are currently engaging in combat? One can only guess based on the dearth of information, or vision available at present. The rational calculus would rule out both China and Russia, since the risk of nuclear escalation with each of these major powers has and hopefully will continue to restrain these near-peer nations from engaging in a major war with the U.S. and its allies.
Many of Trump’s proposals would contribute toward increasing U.S. power and presence in places like Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. For instance, his proposal to complete the modernization of the U.S. Navy’s cruiser force would provide a short-term and affordable boost to the U.S. Navy’s firepower and national defense.
President-elect Trump said on the campaign trail that “history shows that when America is not prepared is when the danger is greatest. We want to deter, avoid and prevent conflict through our unquestioned military strength.”
The notion of being prepared in peacetime for any contingency has merit, and has been part of the U.S. military’s modus operandi since the end of World War II. But it should be noted that a lack of bombs, men or material was not the reason for the less-than-satisfactory state of affairs in Afghanistan and Iraq. The reasons for the mixed results are far more complicated.
More worrisome is the knowledge of history that arms races can often be the catalyst for war. One of the first instances of this is recorded by Thucydides in his account of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides wrote, “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable.” Also, in the years leading up to World War I, Germany’s massive military buildup was one of the causal factors for the war. A final example of the risk of a military buildup came in 1940, when Japan knew the U.S. Navy authorized construction of new and powerful ships that would soon outnumber the Japanese fleet. Imperial Japan opted to roll the dice and attack the U.S. fleet while the odds were still in their favor.
It is noteworthy that the U.S. was laying keels and investing in new ships because they viewed a war with Japan as highly probable in the late 1930s. This gets back to the purpose of such a significant expansion of military power today and begs the question – for what purpose? These historic examples show that a major military buildup in fact may increase the likelihood of war, rather than deter it. To spend trillions building up the military for no stated strategic reason, other than possibly the perception of increased deterrence, is strategically irrational.
This gets back to the question of who is the U.S. trying to deter today? Where is this existential threat that would warrant a doubling of the current defense budget? A wiser choice may be to strengthen the U.S. economy and build capital that can be drawn on in the event of a crisis. Certainly incremental improvements are needed, but pursuing a massive military build-up that is difficult to rationalize in the current threat environment raises more risks than benefits. Strengthening America’s economic vitality would do more to prepare for unforeseen contingencies than spending trillions on weapons and people that are not likely to deter to the enemies we are currently confronting, or even those near-peer competitors that may wish to challenge us.