WHITE HOUSE —
U.S. President Donald Trump promised to boost defense spending when he visited a Virginia shipyard Thursday to tour the most expensive warship ever built.
Wearing a military jacket and ball cap, Trump toured the USS Gerald R. Ford, a $12.9 billion warship that has been plagued by cost overruns and delays but is expected to be commissioned later this year. He used the high-profile event to showcase the budget pledge he made this week to dramatically boost U.S. military spending.
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During Tuesday night's address to Congress, he said, "To keep America safe, we must provide the men and women of the United States military with the tools they need to prevent war."
Aboard the warship, Trump called it "a monument to American might that will provide the strength necessary to ensure peace."
"Hopefully it's power we don't have to use, but if we do, they're in big, big trouble," the president added. He also toured the carrier and met with sailors and military leaders.
The war vessel shifts from steam to electrical power and will be equipped with the best weaponry, communications and operating systems in the nation, according to the builder, Huntington Ingalls Industries.
The president’s request earlier this week for a $54 billion hike boosts the Pentagon budget to more than $600 billion a year. Calling it one of the largest increases in history, Trump said he would even like $30 billion more than that to strengthen what he called a "depleted military." By contrast, the State Department receives roughly $50 billion a year for programs including foreign aid, assistance and development.
‘Not the largest by any means’
At first glance, the figures suggest Trump is planning a much higher U.S. military profile in the world’s hot spots. A diverse group of scholars and military analysts, however, say the proposed 10 percent hike won’t make all that much difference in the grand scheme of things.
They note that the U.S. military is already the most powerful fighting force on the planet, and the United States spends significantly more on defense than any other country.
Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, disputed Trump’s assertion that the Trump proposal would be one of the largest increases in history.
"That’s a bit of an overstatement. It’s certainly a significant increase, but keep in mind the Obama administration was already planning a 6 to 7 percent increase for 2018. The point is, if you look back at defense budgets over time, we had an increase of about this size in 2008 and 2002, and in several years in the early 1980s. So it’s not as large as it seems, and by historical standards it’s not the largest by any means."
Harrison points out that Congress had consistently appropriated significantly less for defense than what former President Barack Obama had requested.
Veronique de Rugy, Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at Virginia’s George Mason University and a nationally syndicated columnist, doubts that boosting spending will do much to improve military preparedness.
"This just perpetrates the myth that every extra dollar that the Pentagon spends enhances national security. It’s not the case," de Rugy said.
She expressed concern that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who are not necessarily experts on military affairs, often look at defense spending in black and white terms.
"I’m more than disappointed that people who claim to care so much about national security seem to have a wrong-headed definition of security," she said, "as if national security only means spending more money. Strategically spending money doesn’t seem overall to matter that much in the end."
‘Preparation for war with Congress’
Regardless of its actual impact, the massive spending proposal helps Trump to argue that he is making good on his campaign promise to "Make America Strong Again." It is also prompting both allies and foes to reassess their own defense strategies.
Former State Department official Joshua Walker, now a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, says countries such as Turkey see a stronger United States as a net plus in stabilizing the troubled Middle East.
"From an allied perception, Turkey would welcome this, saying it’s about time America has a more robust military presence in our neighborhood," Walker said. He described mainstream Turkish thinking as, "What’s happening in Syria is unacceptable. America needs to be more involved. Look what’s happening in Iraq. America has put troops there before and didn’t get it done. Maybe they’ll get it done this time."
On the other hand, Walker says many Asian countries see a bulked up U.S. military as "exactly the provocation that countries like China and Russia have been telling their people to expect for a long time."
He contends talk of a buildup is also sending the impression abroad that the United States is no longer an inviting and welcoming place. "That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said.
While Trump may get his way with a Congress controlled by Republicans, Harrison of CSIS points out that the push for big military spending increases is only the first salvo in an administration budget offensive.
"This is really the opening negotiations for the budget battle this year," he said. "This is not a preparation for war. If it’s a preparation for war, it’s a preparation for war with Congress."