Donald Trump made “rebuilding” the military a central theme of his administration, but as the clock winds down on the one-term president, forces have been left short, and strategic direction muddled.
The conservative Heritage Foundation made the assessment in its 2021 Index of U.S. Military Strength. It looks at the overall ability of the military to meet the nation’s security needs.
Both the Navy and Marines received “marginal” scores in capability and readiness. The Navy was also branded “weak”
The Marine Corps is short six infantry battalions, and the Navy is short 100 ships, this new strength index states.
“Size-wise it’s still too small, equipment-wise it still has old equipment, but it’s a very ready force,” Dakota Wood, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and a current Heritage senior research fellow and co-author of the report, told Marine Corps Times.
Trump made a military buildup the centerpiece of his administration and pushed through large increases in defense spending during its first two years.
But it’s policy objectives have been muddled at best, according to a separate study by the Brookings Institution.
After initially announcing plans for an increase from $716 billion in fiscal year 2019 to $733 billion in 2020, Trump suddenly reversed course and told the Pentagon to plan for a $700 billion budget, the study notes.
In December 2018, “Trump went as far as to call current levels of U.S. defense spending ‘crazy,’ only to announce plans for a $750 billion defense budget just a week later.”
“Defense spending did go up quite substantially under President Trump to date. I wouldn’t call the growth unprecedented, though,” Michael O’Hanlon, a security fellow at the Brookings Institution told the BBC.
“Mr. Trump can claim credit for a large ‘peacetime’ increase from a state that was already fairly good under Mr. Obama, whose defense budgets were strong by historical standards too – more than $100bn above the Cold War annual average, once adjusted for inflation,” he says.
The Pentagon faces a Solomon-like choice between three policy objectives– modernization, upgrading unit readiness and increasing force size and structure.
Of these the last is the least important for the foreseeable future, according to the Brookings study.
“Draining away resources needed elsewhere, increasing force size is actually counter-productive. The focus should be on quality over quantity,” it notes.
But Trump’s call for greater spending also included a strategic redirection.
The military moved away from planning for low-level, asymmetrical warfare in regions like Iraq and Afghanistan to a Cold War posture based on a global conflict with Russia and/or China.
That has led to a call among the services for an increase in military hardware–more ships, tactical aircraft squadrons and more troops.
At the same time, Trump has repeatedly stated his desire to scale back U.S. deployments around the world. On that score he comes up short as well.
“He has only moved the needle modestly in terms of global operations and deployments, as we remain everywhere that we were on January 20, 2017 when he took office,” said O’Hanlon.
In fact, troop reductions were much greater under President Obama. Large-scale deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan ended during his years in charge.
In another bizarre, counterproductive move, Trump hasn’t hesitated to play politics with the defense budget to meet marginally relevant, symbolic political goals.
Last July, Trump declared all out war against the nation’s military in a bid to preserve a Confederate legacy that stood for slavery and a traitorous revolt against the United States.
He vowed to veto the all-important military appropriation bill (NDAA) that funds our national defense if the Pentagon moved to strip the names of Confederate war heroes from U.S. military bases.
The NDAA includes a provision to rename 10 military installations.
He upped the ante recently by also threatening to veto the defense appropriation bill if it doesn’t include repeal of section 230 of the communications decency act.
The section gives Facebook, Google and Twitter and other social media sites legal immunity over content posted by third-party users.
If Trump carries out his threat, the House and Senate have already indicated they will override his veto.
“It is pathetic that Trump refuses to help unemployed workers, while he spends his time tweeting unhinged election conspiracies and demanding Congress repeal the foundation of free speech online,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who co-sponsored section 230.
The incoming Biden administration will likely conduct a full-scale re-evaluation of the nation’s military posture.
It needs to focus on innovation and breakthrough capabilities while maintaining readiness to meet the nation’s global commitments.
“Investing in modernization and readiness rather than growth, paired with more clever and efficient management of the military, can allow today’s U.S. military to do the job, the Brookings study states.