Trump faces challenges to his military ambitions
He also will have to battle Pentagon bureaucracy
Where better to tout a military spending hike than from the deck of the most expensive ship ever built?
President Donald Trump will head to the Navy’s newest, most sophisticated vessel Thursday as he seeks to prolong the glow from his well-received address to Congress and provide a jolt of momentum to his governing agenda.
The USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier is currently berthed in Newport News shipyard, Virginia, as it readies for its final sea trials as the first of a new class of flat-top ships to take to the seas. The hulking giant will provide Trump the showman with a dramatic $13 billion metaphor for his plan to boost the Navy’s 270 vessels to around 350.
But before Trump gets too high on the success of his speech Tuesday night and the projection of power he will use as his backdrop, he might do well to pay heed to the pitfalls that could await him as well. Trump faces challenges to his military ambitions, in part because he has promised to “demolish and destroy ISIS,” as he mentioned on Tuesday night, in connection to the plan he has solicited from his generals to combat the terror group.
He also will have to battle Pentagon bureaucracy to achieve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness he has pledged to deliver and battle Congress to get the funds needed to make the investment he desires in the military.
Trump’s plan to crank up the fight against ISIS comes as the long, slower strategy followed by the Obama administration appears to be bearing fruit, with allied Iraqi government and militia forces backed by US air power make progress in their bid to recapture all of the key city of Mosul, Iraq. The ISIS footprint in Syria is also shrinking.
An intensified plan to finish off ISIS more quickly could mean greater risks to US soldiers, who could be directly sent into Syria under plans currently being considered by US generals. There could also be a prolonged stay for American forces in Iraq to ensure stability after ISIS’ expected defeat. Both were scenarios the Obama administration decided to avoid.
Trump’s apparent tolerance for risk was highlighted by the first major combat operation of his presidency – the anti-terror raid in Yemen that killed US Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens. Owens’ father has called the raid “stupid” and demanded an investigation. But Trump said in his speech that he had spoken to Defense Secretary James Mattis and received assurances that the raid yielded vital intelligence.
Trump quoted Mattis as telling him: “Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.”
Then, in the emotional high point of the address, he singled out the SEAL’s widow, Carryn Owens, as the House floor erupted in a prolonged standing ovation. Carryn, with tears streaming down her face, looked to the heavens and joined in the applause.
Many were moved by the episode, but several observers also warned Trump not to be overconfident about the raid’s success.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN, “One thing I would caution the President to do is don’t oversell.”
He continued, “When a raid is being oversold, then you maybe won’t learn from what you should learn from. So my advice is celebrate this young man as a hero and not oversell, and I don’t know if they’re overselling but we’ll eventually find out.”
Trump won’t be the only recent president to visit Newport News. His predecessor, Barack Obama, held an event in the submarine manufacturing works in 2013 to lobby against sequester spending limits that cut deep into the Defense Department budget – curbs that Trump is now trying to remove.
Trump touted his plan to hike military spending by 10%, or $54 billion, to be paid for by cuts to the State Department and other government agencies, in his speech on Tuesday night.
“To keep America safe, we must provide the men and women of the United States military with the tools they need to prevent war – if they must – they have to fight and they only have to win,” Trump told lawmakers, military brass and members of his Cabinet in the televised address.
“I am sending Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the defense sequester and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.”
It will be easier said than done for Trump to fundamentally reshape the balance of defense and domestic spending. To begin with, 60 votes will be required in the Senate to lift the sequester spending caps on military funding, and there is no guarantee Democrats will go along.
Some Republicans – like Arizona Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee – argue that Trump’s spending hike for defense is not sufficient to make up for the deep cuts that have been made during the time of the sequester.
And Senate GOP majority leader Mitch McConnell expressed doubts that a budget that slashes the State Department’s funding – as suggested by the White House – could pass.
“I for one, just speaking for myself, think the diplomatic portion of the federal budget is very important, and you get results a lot cheaper frequently than you do on the defense side,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.
And while Trump is likely to highlight the Ford aircraft carrier as an example of American military might and advanced technological skill, the ship also provides the President with a warning about the unforeseen development snafus, cost overruns and delays that can accompany defense spending.
Trump has made reforming the procurement process and the high cost of defense articles something of a crusade.
“We’ve saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by bringing down the price of fantastic – and it is a fantastic – new F-35 jet fighter, and we’ll be saving billions more on contracts all across our government,” Trump said on Capitol Hill on Tuesday night.
The 100,000-ton, 1,100-foot-long USS Gerald Ford (CVN 78), named after the president who succeeded Richard Nixon after the Watergate saga, was laid down in 2009. It’s state-of-the-art electromagnetic catapult is designed to allow 25% more missions to be flown each day than by existing carriers.
But the Ford is more than two years behind schedule. A memo from June 28 last year obtained by CNN revealed that the ship experienced difficulties in launching and recovering aircraft, moving on-board munitions and conducting air traffic control and self-defense.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain slammed the delay as “unacceptable” at the time and branded the Ford-class program as a “case study in why our acquisition system must be reformed – unrealistic business cases, poor cost estimates, new systems rushed to production, concurrent design and construction, and problems testing systems to demonstrate promised capability.”
Indeed, Trump might be well advised to remember the case of the last Republican president who took a victory lap on the deck of an aircraft carrier – and came to regret it.
In a dramatic made-for-television production, George W. Bush flew onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of California to declare the end of major combat operations in Iraq in 2003. His speech, given under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished,” became a symbol of hubris and of the premature declaration of victory in Iraq, a country where US forces are now battling ISIS.