Rep. Adam Smith: Trump’s Military Spending And Planning Needs A Reality Check

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, of Washington, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, during a hearing on July 16, 2014.
Defense Department / Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton.

The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee is skeptical that the increases in defense spending proposed by President Donald Trump will actually make the United States any safer.

Washington State Rep. Adam Smith told Task & Purpose that he believes the U.S. military is being asked to train for too many possible war scenarios, and that is driving the need for more troops and equipment.

“I am aware of the threats – as aware as anybody – but there is a finite amount of money out there and they [the Trump administration] seem to be pretending that there’s not,” Smith said.

The U.S. should reach out partners and allies to seek diplomatic solutions to crises instead of building up the military at the expense of the State Department, Smith told Task & Purpose, adding that the national debt will become unsustainable if Congress continues to cut taxes and spend more money than it takes in.

The following is interview excerpts, edited for length and clarity.

Is it accurate to say you oppose any increases in defense spending without commensurate increases in non-defense spending?

I don’t think that would be accurate, no. For me, it’s not a dollar-for-dollar thing. I think that’s rather a silly way to approach a budget.

My concern is that with the tax cut and with the $500 billion [in proposed spending increases] … that our debt and deficit are out of control and we do not have a sustainable federal budget past about four or five years, best case scenario – certainly not for a decade.

What happens three, four years from now, when the debt hits $25 trillion, the deficit is pushing towards $2 trillion, and it’s just not sustainable anymore. How do you then proceed? That is my concern.

Now, I also believe that there are domestic priorities that are important to the health and well-being and security of our nation other than just the defense budget. Let’s just say we are spending vastly more money than we’re taking in and that has very bad implications in terms of being able to function properly.

Do you feel the proposed defense budget for fiscal 2019 includes excessive or wasteful spending?

Oh, sure, but, again, the overarching problem is having the resources to match what it is that we want to spend the money on. The biggest thing for me is I do not agree with diving into a nuclear arms race with Russia and China. The amount of money that we’re proposing to spend on nukes, I think, is both excessive and the wrong policy, without question.

If you’re going to have a whole-of-government approach, how do you cut the State Department by 27 percent?

There are some other areas where I think we could save money and be more realistic about it. The numbers simply don’t add up. We can probably get through the next two years, but we’re getting through them on the mother of all credit cards.

When the joint chiefs say that readiness levels are dangerously low, do you feel they are exaggerating?

I don’t, no. The problem here is that we have a very expanded mission list; but again, insufficient dollars to fund it. So, we’re trying to do too much and the first thing that gets cut when you’re trying to do too much is readiness.

You train a little bit less. You fire a little less ammunition in practice. You don’t repair ships and planes and trucks so they don’t work. You don’t train as often. All of those things make us more vulnerable.

So yes, I agree with the readiness crisis. But the solution to the readiness crisis is not to dramatically increase the defense budget and expand the mission set so that you’re buying more equipment and putting more requirements on the COCOMs [combatant commands].

The solution is to say: ‘OK, let’s be realistic about we can be prepared to do,’ and then train our men and women in the military to be ready to do it.

You can whip yourself into a frenzy about all of the people who are coming after you. I think we can take a step back, build partnerships, and try to find ways through diplomatic and other means to reduce the risk of these conflicts that we have to spend so much money to prepare for.

Right now, the Trump administration apparently has one and only one approach, and that is to try to present the world with the most massive military he can possibly and hyperbolically describe as a deterrent to their bad actions, as opposed to building partnerships with other nations, who have similar interests, so that they can help us meet our national security interests – or finding ways to work diplomatically with countries like China and Iran and North Korea, and even Russia for that matter – to reduce the threat that we face and get to a different place.

I am aware of the threats – as aware as anybody – but there is a finite amount of money out there and they seem to be pretending that there’s not.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has said the service will still go to war at lower readiness levels but fewer airmen will come back. Has Congress become apathetic to casualties?

No. I don’t think so.

On the other hand, there is also a ceiling on what Heather Wilson is saying. If that’s the case, and you spin out all the scenarios – and they’re all possible, none of them likely, but they’re possible – Russia could go rolling into Eastern Europe, try to take over the Baltic states; Iran could invade Saudi Arabia; China could invade Taiwan; North Korea could invade South Korea. Pick a scenario. It could happen.

By that measure, we would need a defense budget somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 trillion in order to be ready for everything. That’s not possible.

It’s true: When the Korean War happened … we weren’t ready for it. The first groups of people that we sent over there were not ready and as a consequence, a lot of people died.

But if you take the measure and say you’re going to train as if tomorrow every bad national security scenario could happen, then let’s just raise taxes dramatically and get rid of all other federal spending and acknowledge that’s what we’re going to do.

The bottom line is you do have to take some risks. What’s the risk of not funding infrastructure? How many more bridges have to collapse and how many more trains have to run off the tracks before we recognize that those people are dead too. How many people have to die because they don’t have access to adequate healthcare before we count that?

Do you agree that as equipment ages and the military branches cut back on training, more troops will be killed in training accidents and ship collisions?

Yes, I don’t disagree with that at all. But what I’m saying is: Yes, we should do that, but if you then expand the mission set out, then you have to train for even more. You need even more equipment and you need even more people in the service, so you need to train them even more.

You have to have a balance there. If you just say, ‘We have to be ready for absolutely every bad thing that could happen to us from a national security standpoint,’ you’re trapped in an endless loop.

So, no, I don’t disagree at all. That’s why I’ve said: We should vet our mission set and train to it.

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