Why Trump says the state of US military is a 'disaster'

Many in the military take issue with Donald Trump's claims. After all, the US spends far more on defense than any other country. But the size of the military is shrinking.

Karl Ronstrom/Reuters/File
The USS Mason, seen here at Port Canaveral, Fla., in 2003, came under attack off the coast of Yemen earlier this month but easily defended itself.

It is a reliable applause line that Donald Trump delivers often.

The state of the military is a “disaster,” it is “depleted,” and as president he will “rebuild” it.

Put simply, Mr. Trump wants to add more troops and ships and planes.

But the United States already spends as much on its military as the next seven highest-spending countries combined. It has as many aircraft carriers (10) as the rest of the world combined (China has one). And Defense spending is up 22 percent over its Cold War peak in 1986.

What needs rebuilding?

The answer depends largely how prepared one thinks the country should be for the potential threats it faces.

Is the US ready to carry out the stability and counterterrorism operations that have defined American military deployments in recent years? Absolutely.

Is it ready to fight multiple traditional wars against major powers at the same time, as it was in the Cold War? That is less certain.

Ready to do what?

Current and recently retired members of the military – both brass and rank-and-file – bristle at Trump’s criticism. Yes, the military is getting smaller, but the decision is strategic, they say, not a sign of weakness. And if wars are harder to win, it’s a function of the changing nature of war, not the force.

The military can afford be smaller “because we have technology where we don’t have to have so many people fighting on the front lines, risking our lives,” says Shawn Van Diver, a Navy petty officer first class, who served from 2001 to 2013 as a fire controlman for weapons systems on combat ships. 

When the US Navy destroyer USS Mason came under attack earlier this month with missiles fired from rebel-held areas of Yemen, it was easily able to deploy countermeasures like the Aegis system, Mr. Van Diver notes.

“If the US military was so broken, then the USS Mason would be a heap of scrap, because it wouldn’t be able to shoot those missiles down,” he says, adding that Trump is “full of it.” 

But there are concerns that the decline in the size of the military – fewer troops and the smallest Navy since 1916 – means the US is less prepared for the sorts of wars it hasn’t had to fight in years.

“If the question is, ‘Are we ready to fight against [the Islamic State] in Iraq and Syria, the answer is, ‘You’re darn right we are,’ ” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James said this week at a forum sponsored by the Center for a New American Security. “The United States Air Force is not at all broken.” 

“But then if you say, ‘What if you get into a different type of a fight, a fight where you don’t necessarily control the skies and where the enemy on the ground or elsewhere can interfere with you in a major way, in space, and cyber? What if you get into a fight where there are integrated air defenses that you go up against on the ground?’ That is where we have concerns about our readiness, that we don’t have enough of our force fully ready to be able to take on that level of fight,” Secretary James added. 

“Now, as we get called upon to do it, make no mistake, we will go and we will do the job, but at levels of lower readiness. Our worry there is that it will take longer to get the job done. We may lose more lives. More people may be hurt or killed. We may lose more assets, more aircraft and the like.” 

That is the substance behind Trump’s argument, some analysts say.

“It took nearly the entire Army to sustain a 20 brigade-level force in Iraq,” says retired Lt. Col. Dakota Wood, who served as a Marine until 2005, including in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Army is currently at 480,000, having shed approximately 100,000 soldiers in four years. “The Army would be hard-pressed to do Iraq again, much less approximate Cold War-types of fighting,” argues Mr. Wood, who is now an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which notes on its website that Trump used the think tank’s research in his “plan to rebuild America’s weakened military.” 

“So when Trump is talking about the dire state of the military’s size and readiness, I think he’s on the mark,” adds Wood. 

But is the military a “disaster”?

“Everything in the political environment is stated in extreme terms – nuance doesn’t play well in the media,” he says. Disaster is “probably a bit too much of a word to use.” 

Smaller or weaker?

Others, however, suggest that Trump’s thinking is out of touch with the times.

During his dozen years in the Navy, Van Diver says he saw big shifts in warfare. “When we’re cutting down on the number of people, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’re investing in technology – that’s a very good thing.” 

Trump has worried aloud about a Navy that has gone from more than 500 ships in 1991 to 272 today – a figure he vows to increase to 350.

“Yes, and our cavalry’s a lot smaller, too,” quips Lt. Cmdr. Mark Jacobson, a Navy reservist who also served as a sergeant in the Army from 1993 to 2001.

His point is that the raw numbers don’t say much about the Navy’s ability to do its job. “The fact is, that one aircraft carrier today has the capacity of the entire Pacific fleet during World War II, with strike groups of over 60 or 70 planes.”

What’s more, the US has three times as many destroyers as both China and Russia, one third more nuclear-powered submarines than Russia, and eight times more than China, he notes.

For his part, Peter Kiernan, who served as a sergeant in Marine Special Operations Forces from 2007 to 2013 – deploying to Afghanistan twice – saw concerns about burnout for SOF teams up close.

During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, troops would deploy for nine months, return for six, then deploy for another nine. “A large majority of the fighting falls disproportionately on the special operations and combat-oriented community,” Mr. Kiernan says. 

In the later years, however, “There was almost no reason to complain. Most of us senior guys – we’d been in long enough to see the invasions, to go through the larger battles of the wars, to know what it was like to have [bad] provisions and conditions. You didn’t see any sort of complaining when I served in 2012 and 2013, because we were so well taken care of.” 

They were well-trained and well-equipped, Kiernan says, and he knows of no troops who would disagree with that assessment today.

The question is: Would they be ready for another Iraq?

“When we did the ground invasion of Iraq in 2003, that’s 13 years ago,” says Wood of the Heritage Foundation. “So the vast majority of the military has never known an operational environment other than stability ops. That skews their reference point for what kind of training they need.” 

Still, it’s hard to make the argument that the Pentagon pressed for cash, many military analysts point out. Overall, US military spending accounts for 37 percent of the world’s total. In 2015, the US spent $597 billion on the military. The next-largest military spender, China, spent $215 billion. 

Changing wars, changing force

And the argument that the US military doesn’t win anymore? Troops like Kiernan and Van Diver take exception. 

“Trump’s comments that we don’t win anymore hark back to the first Gulf War, where it’s really cut-and-dry when we were operating against a state actor,” Kiernan says. “It highlights his naiveté.”

“People who have been out of the military for a long time, or have that Cold War-mindset – the old white men of the military – say, ‘We need tanks,’ ” Van Diver says. “But I served from 2001 to 2013, and I saw how the military has changed, how warfare has changed – war is a different place. We’re not training to fight nation-states, but insurgent movements, rebel groups, urban and cyber warfare, because those are the wars of the future.” 

Even against Russian forces, Wood acknowledges, the US has the advantage in “carriers, submarines, tanks – whatever it might be.” 

But the US tends to want to do many things at once.

“It’s not just about us against the next major competitor. It’s us and our interests in the Baltics, the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia-Pacific,” he adds. “The US military has to maintain presence or at least the ability to respond anywhere in the world – that’s inherently more expensive, and we need a larger force.” 

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