WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump says he wants a military buildup, and Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain has a plan to do it — one that would cost $430 billion more than current plans over five years.
While the Trump plan looks to rebuild the military through more hardware and manpower, the hawkish Arizona Republican argues the US military, weakened by the Obama administration and budget caps, also ought to be reshaped. It's an ambitious proposition that would have to navigate a Congress marked for years with budget dysfunction: GOP fiscal hawks with an aversion to deficit spending on one hand and Democrats who want parity for defense and non-defense spending on the other.
In a 33-page white paper, " Restoring American Power," McCain says the US military cannot do what he says it must: Wage and win conventional warfare in three priority theaters — Asia, Europe and the Middle East — with plans to counter the new threats of battlefield nuclear weapons, cyberattacks and irregular warfare.
"The joint force must be bigger, but more importantly, it must be more capable. Our adversaries are modernizing their militaries to exploit our vulnerabilities," McCain argues. "If all we do is buy more of the same, it is not only a bad investment; it is dangerous. We must rethink how our military projects power and invest in new capabilities."
For the defense industry, there is plenty to notice. McCain proposes ending the off-schedule, over-budget littoral combat ship program in 2017 at 28 ships and begin procuring the next small surface combatant in 2022. For Lockheed Martin's embattled joint strike fighter, the Air Force's goal of 1,763 F-35As by 2040 is "unrealistic and requires re-evaluation, and likely a reduction," but the Air Force should buy as many as possible for now, McCain says.
For next year's defense budget, McCain has proposed a $640 billion base national defense budget (including Department of Energy nuclear activities). That's $54 billion above President Barack Obama's planned budget.
For any military buildup to prevail, it would likely require Washington to untangle the problem of mandatory spending caps enacted by Congress, under the 2011 Bipartisan Budget Act, with hopes of reigning in the federal budget. The Pentagon has managed to ease some shortfalls by tucking enduring requirements in the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account, meant for emergency wartime expenses.
By McCain's reckoning, OCO masked $41 billion in enduring requirements in the 2017 budget, and overall, "broken future spending caps, rosy cost growth assumptions, and the abuse of OCO … adds up to more than $300 billion in existing defense costs."
"We have been deceiving ourselves and the American people for too long," McCain argues. "We have allowed arbitrary caps on our national defense spending to remain in place for five years, despite clear evidence that the world is growing more dangerous, the state of military readiness and modernization is growing more perilous, and none of this is having any impact on the national debt, which keeps growing."
The president-elect's plan has thus far included broad brushstrokes: Trump wants an active-duty Army with another 60,000 soldiers in the ranks, and an unspecified number of additional sailors to man the 78 ships and submarines he intends to see built in the coming years. He wants up to 12,000 more Marines to serve in infantry and tank battalions, and at least another 100 combat aircraft for the Air Force.
Trump's plan to lift spending caps would add roughly $450 billion to the federal deficit over the next decade, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB). To offset that cost, Trump has pledged to find savings in other areas; that includes cutting spending that has not been formally authorized by a legislative committee, which would save about $150 billion, according to CRFB estimates.
To figure out how it will all add up, Trump has selected the fiscally hawkish Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., as his director of the Office of Management and Budget. It's been read as a signal of his intent to slash spending and address the deficit as president.
"Reversing this budget-driven damage to our military must be a top priority for national leaders," McCain argues. "President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to 'fully eliminate the defense sequester' and 'submit a new budget to rebuild our military.' This cannot happen soon enough. The damage that has been done to our military over the past eight years will not be reversed in one year."
McCain and Trump, who have been at odds politically, do not completely align here. While Trump has suggested he's less inclined toward military interventions and global operations, McCain advises the opposite: that the next defense secretary and Congress assess where and how many permanently forward-stationed forces are needed, without considering any fewer of them.
"When reconsidering global force posture, one option should clearly be off the table: a large-scale reduction in forward-stationed or forward-deployed forces that the United States relies upon around the world," McCain said. "We have run this experiment over the past eight years: The United States withdrew forces in Europe and the Middle East, and the resulting vacuum was filled with chaos, the malign influence of our adversaries, and threats to our nation."
The McCain white paper offers detailed recommendations for the armed services to improve capabilities incrementally, but significantly. Overall, it argues for a joint force "equipped with what is often called 'a high/low mix of capabilities.' Finally, we need to rethink our global military posture to make it more forward, flexible, resilient, and formidable."
Here are some highlights from the five-year plan, beyond those mentioned above:
- Growing from 274 ships for the Navy to 355 ships is unrealistic in five years, but with funding, it should do 59 ships and invest in autonomous and unmanned capabilities.
- The Navy should boost procurement of manned submarines from two per year to three per year in 2020 and four per year starting in 2021; procure an added 58 F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets, and 16 additional EA-18G Growlers, in light of F-35C delays.
- The Marine Corps, at 182,000 Marines, is too small to meet deployment-dwell target ratios and should grow by 3,000 per year to 200,000 by 2022. To fix readiness problems, the Marines should speed procurement of replacement aircraft like the F-35B, CH-53K helicopter and KC-130J tanker; F-35B procurement should be increased by 20 aircraft over the next five years.
- The Air Force, in light of China's and Russia’s planned advancements, may need 1,500 fighter aircraft and an end strength boost of 20,000. It should rethink the number of F-35A buys, given ongoing capacity shortfalls, but may need more B-21 bombers. While sustaining the A-10 close-air support fighter fleet, procure 300 low-cost, light attack fighters — the first 200 by 2022.
- The Army should field emerging technologies, such as electronic warfare and unmanned ground vehicles and modernize air defenses and munitions. Upgrade five brigades with the latest variants of the Abrams tank, Bradley fighting vehicle and and Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle — outfitted with the Active Protection System.
- The Army could realistically add 8,000 soldiers a year through 2022 to retain heavier force structure that was due to be eliminated. It could also help the Army experiment with new force mixtures and concepts, such as train, advise and assist brigades to build partner-military capacity and multi-domain combat brigades to project power in contested environments through long-range fires, cyber and other capabilities.
- Nuclear modernization should move ahead as planned while throttling up on missile defense programs: the ground-based midcourse defense system; Aegis ashore sites in Romania and Poland; the Redesigned Kill Vehicle and Multiple Object Kill Vehicle; and next-generation capabilities.
- Investment in new technologies should include more funding for rapid capabilities offices in each of the military services, with greater emphasis on prototyping, experimentation and common-sense principles such as "fly before you buy."
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.