Trump Is Alarmed By His Own Defense Spending And He Should Be

The reality is that the U.S. will soon owe more annually in interest on the national debt than the cost of the entire defense budget.

President Trump Speaks At A Made In America Product Showcase Eve
Alex Wong—Alex Wong/picture-alliance/dpa/A

Donald Trump is truly the Tweeter in Chief, having adopted Twitter as his communications platform of choice, for better or worse. Since becoming the 45th President of The United States, Trump has sent out plenty of puzzling and contradicting messages on the popular social media platform, but one sent today is especially peculiar. In it, he talks of needing to stave off an arms race he previously seemed to welcome and lamented defense spending, which his administration spurred and that he has touted in the past as one of his greatest achievements.

The tweets read: 

"I am certain that, at some time in the future, President Xi and I, together with President Putin of Russia, will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race. The U.S. spent 716 Billion Dollars this year. Crazy!"

It seems very strange that he is calling his own self-touted achievement and a policy his administration presided over "crazy." Trump has repeatedly claimed that he "rebuilt the military" after a couple years of increased budgets. Although there has been increased defense spending across the board, Secretary of Defense James Mattis' prioritization of funds into readiness and sustainment have helped the military recover from years of sequestration, not just a larger total defense spending figure alone. 

The problem is that a quick spurt of research and development and procurement dollars will actually end up hurting the military in many ways compared to a far more constrained, but reformed defense spending agenda. With Trump already talking about possible cuts to defense spending before this tweet, the reality of having throngs of immature programs being jettisoned after ghastly wasteful spending is very real. This is exactly what I have been predicting for some time, that these current budget levels are wholly unsustainable and a snapback in spending will come far sooner than later, leaving the military with huge amounts of zombie programs, half-developed weapons, and new weapons that will be mothballed as soon or even before they formally enter service. 

The push for new nuclear weapons and delivery system concepts is by far the most vexing and frustrating. Instead of rationalizing America's aging and bloated nuclear weapons ecosystem, the Nuclear Posture Review, and the Trump administration's policy that went along with it, demanded not only to upgrade the entire existing arsenal, but also expand it in significant ways. In addition, there is the administration's hard push for an independent Space Force, which is already mired in service-level infighting and will cost billions to establish and sustain. How will all this, and so many other new conventional weapons programs and defense initiatives, survive falling budget levels?

There is no doubt that the sprawling Department of Defense is an incredibly wasteful institution. Inroads into even understanding what that waste looks like quantitatively are just now being made, most notably in the form of the department's first ever and very much failed audit. Regardless of just how much money is unaccounted for or wastefully spent, deep systemic reform will be needed to really realize any meaningful savings. The big question is with all the special interests in play and with the better part of a century of shoveling money into countless black holes as fast as it can, is there really the will, both political and otherwise, to reform the Pentagon's deeply ingrained and often downright reckless spending habits?

Maybe the most alarming part of all this is that whenever I mention the coming fiscal pull-back to defense contractors they sound totally in denial of such a glaring possibility. They seem to expect that the current gravy train will chug along through the coming decade, spurred by threats from China and Russia. That is very unlikely as the skyrocketing debt is an issue that will increasingly hamper discretionary spendingin particular, defense spending—not to mention the national debt becoming a more perilous political liability. A major downturn in the economy will only further accelerate this looming fiscal reckoning.

To give you an idea of just how dire the problem is, well within the next decade, interest payments on the debt alone will eclipse the entire defense budget in terms of annual cost.

With all this in mind, I would posit that the skyrocketing national debt is a bigger threat to national security than any external state or non-state actor. 

USMC

It appears as if Trump recently learned just how much the Federal Government was spending and on what in comparison to what it was taking in. This revelation seems to have occurred last October when a U.S. Treasury report stated that the budget deficit had grown 17 percent over just the last year to $779B and it will reach $1T per year by 2020. That is with a booming economy, if it were to hit the skids, that number would likely balloon. The cause of the year-to-year debt hike is primarily the Trump tax cuts and increases in defense spending

Following the report, Trump announced that he wants every agency to make a five percent budget cut, although he may exempt some government organizations, like the DoD, from as steep a budgetary decline. But even if he can pull off such reduction, it would amount to $68B in savings, which is far smaller than the projected deficit increases. 

It's good that Trump wants to work at trilateral arms reduction agreements, but in the past, he has openly invited arms races, making this statement a bit confusing. Better late than never, though. Hopefully, he follows through with doing everything possible to craft such accords, by all indications doing so won't be easy. One glaring roadblock is that Russia doesn't seem interested in abiding by existing deals, so the idea that they would adhere to new ones is debatable. Also, between very chilly relations with China as the result of an ongoing trade war and with Russia basically entering into a new Cold War with the West, just getting to the table to negotiate will be a major undertaking.

Beyond the traditional arms control agreements of the past that focused on established weaponry and domains of warfighting, areas that really need some sort of arms agreement between China, Russia, and the U.S. are in regards to space-based, cyber, and hypersonic weaponry and the combat doctrine associated with them. These areas are quickly becoming a Wild West of sorts where previous international agreement don't address emerging capabilities that have the potential to destabilize established strategic norms and even wreak havoc on critical civilian infrastructure.

The bottom line here is that it's good news that Trump is coming to understand that arms reduction deals not only help limit strategic risk and lower tensions among peer state competitors, but they can also have an incredibly welcome fiscal impact on the budget. At the same time, it is outright concerning that the President of the United States seems not to have had any concept of the negative fiscal impacts his own policies would have. 

Now that's crazy.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com