One year into the Trump administration, what are the most complex challenges facing the U.S. military? This is the fourth installment of THREAT WEEK, our brief series spotlighting some of the Pentagon’s biggest obstacles ahead of President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address.
By all accounts, 2017 was a year marred by tragedy for the U.S. armed forces — and the year that most civilians learned exactly why “readiness” matters. At least 56 service members were killed in non-combat incidents in the last six months of the year alone as combat-related deaths hit a six-year high, according to a Military Times analysis. After the summer brought the back-to-back collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and USS John McCain in the Pacific theater — punctuated by a KC-130 crash that killed 15 Marines and a Navy corpsman in July — observers attributed the rise in class A mishaps at sea and in the air to the Defense Department’s high operational tempo.
The Pentagon isn’t just stretched thin, but a buck short thanks to sequestration cuts and the political jousting that led to the government shutdown earlier in January — constraints that some lawmakers argue threaten to dramatically impact efforts to maintain and advance troop readiness and operability. Without appropriate resources and funding, the Pentagon will find itself pushed to the breaking point with each tactical confrontation — and though these challenges aren’t as visceral as the threats posed by ISIS and North Korea, experts argue that each shortfall will leave the United States permanently hamstrung in achieving its core objectives abroad.
“The biggest challenge for the Navy and Marine Corps in 2018 is to make the case that what they do is different and unique and critical to American security and that it should be better resourced,” Bryan McGrath, a retired naval officer and founder of national security consultancy The FerryBridge Group, told Task & Purpose. “I do not know that this means other elements of national security need be diminished. That’s not the argument for the moment; rather, it’s the tools that American seapower brings to American national defense are indeed unique.”
American seapower isn’t just unique in terms of conventional wars like the intense non-nuclear engagement that keeps North Korea observers up at night. Instead, McGrath argued, the power projection afforded by the Navy and Marines is a critical pillar of the day-to-day business of conventional deterrence that defines the Pentagon’s role as a sword of American hegemony. “Land power, unless it’s proximate, is not deterring anybody, and air power, unless it has overflight rights, is not deterring anybody,” McGrath explains. “The fact that the Navy and Marine Corps can use the maneuver force afforded by the seas, unclaimed and unclaimable, means they can shoulder a disproportionate share of the conventional deterrence efforts.”
The problem is that the Navy and Marine Corps, in McGrath’s mind, “are not making the case,” despite the fact that Trump’s initial $693 billion defense budget proposal for 2018 explicitly emphasized efforts to greatly expand the Navy and accelerate acquisition efforts for the indispensable Corps. To McGrath, the armed forces’ bloody summer is the most visceral evidence yet that American seapower can’t sit around and wait while lawmakers squabble over line items for combined arms exercises or the Trump administration plans to build a 355-ship Navy.
“The whole 355 [ship] thing is an implementation detail; safety is the foundation of everything: You simply can’t do the other stuff without it,” McGrath told Task & Purpose. “Right now, we don’t have enough seapower to do what we ask of it today, and what we ask of it today is insufficient to our role in the world and misaligned with the responsibility of a great power to protect and sustain a global system.”
In McGrath’s assessment, no number of task forces or five-year strategic reviews can fix the DoD’s readiness woes — only a come-to-Jesus moment on defense spending can. While the current strategic requirements posed by the Global War on Terror represent a distinct departure from the posture of the Cold War, the proportions of the defense budget allocated to the Navy and Marine Corps rarely change; indeed, a Task & Purpose review of DoD baseline budget requests revealed that Navy and Marine Corps budget proposals have hovered around 29% for at least the last decade.
When it comes to resourcing for the Navy and Marine Corps, “the needle never moves regardless of whatever major reviews between the Cold War and the Global War on Terror suggest,” says McGrath. “It’s evidence of a fixed way of looking at military force irrespective of the actual security conditions out there in the world … I get the political position that folks like [Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson] are in, but it’s time to talk about seapower and its unique role in the world.”
The one thing everyone’s missing: War is its own business, and this poor allocation of military spending between the various service branches reflects competing incentives. “There are powerful constituencies of influential people in the Trump administration, who obsess over the centrality of land power and see sea and air power as ‘support’ roles,’” McGrath said. “This is where the defense industry and congressional base conspire to limit options, which leads to a lack of strategic creativity.
“If we can move the budget needle in a way that makes 355 ships a reality or makes 205,000 Marines a reality, the sort of situation where resources follow a coherent strategic approach, that would be lovely, but I don’t hold out hope for that,” he added. “The thing that can break through here is presidential leadership, but I simply dont president Trump being that guy.”