Remember Dave, that kid who got really tall fast, who towered over everyone in Mrs. Ambrozewski’s third-grade class? His height advantage persisted through fifth grade, but the gap started to narrow as other kids hit puberty in middle school. Dave remained the tallest kid, anchored the basketball team, was still the go-to guy when Sister Irene needed someone to reach something on a high shelf. But instead of being head-shoulders-and-chest above everyone else, he now had only two inches on the next-tallest kids. That was still a considerable advantage in gym class, but it didn’t lend itself to domination. I wonder how Dave felt about that change. It must have felt sometimes like he was shrinking.
It’s this shrinking feeling that President Trump has tapped into in proposing a massive increase in the federal defense budget—$54 billion—in the fiscal 2018 budget outline that the White House provided on Monday and that the president will discuss in his address to Congress Tuesday night. He plans to offset that new spending with cuts to other forms of discretionary spending, like foreign aid, which the president describes as a massive giveaway to the rest of the world. In fact, it’s a sliver of the federal budget that is spent directly in line with our nation’s foreign policy (i.e., national security) goals.
The president’s depiction of foreign aid is pretty clearly out of step with the facts. The military issues are more complicated. And they will affect New York in more ways than one. The city will suffer overall from cuts to housing, environmental and social programs. Companies in the five boroughs who get Pentagon contracts, however, will benefit.
The biggest, by less
Critics of the Trump defense plan note that the U.S. still enjoys a massive advantage over all other countries when it comes to overall size of its military and budget. The president and his supporters counter that the U.S. is losing its edge and will see it erode further unless it spends more. The evidence suggests both sides are right.
The annual U.S. military budget is larger than the next seven biggest-spending nations combined, and U.S. forces possess huge numerical advantages over potential foes—like 10 aircraft carriers to Russia’s and China’s one apiece.
But because Russia, after fading as an adversary during the 1990s, and China, whose economy gives it alone the means to compete with the U.S. when it comes to military spending, have both been spending more, the gap is narrowing in some key areas.
Those areas matter because the combat scenarios that military planners think about don’t involve the U.S. throwing its entire arsenal at an opponent, but rather fighting with particular kinds of weapons suited to the strategic tasks that are likely to come up in a plausible regional conflict—like, say, a fight with China over Taiwan. It’s like the Olympics: Of course the U.S. is going to win the most medals because we bring a huge number of athletes and they’re well trained and well equipped. But in an individual 100-meter sprint, or Greco-Roman wrestling match or sevens rugby game, that overall advantage doesn’t really matter. It comes down to the athletes and coaches in that particular contest.
To wit, Rand’s modeling finds that in some—but only some—scenarios involving air power, China’s forces are achieving near parity. And a recent report by Next Big Future suggests that China has outdone the U.S. when it comes to some specific types of air-to-air missile technology, while some of Russia’s rocket artillery can outshoot what the U.S. would put in the field as part of NATO. Meanwhile, as with all capital spending, depreciation takes its toll: The Congressional Budget Office reports that the U.S. will have to spend tens of billions over the next several years just to replace warships and nuclear weapons that are aging past their shelf-life.
If, that is, the U.S. really wants to replace them. Accepting Trump’s premise that the U.S. is losing its military edge doesn’t mean one has to buy the notion that a shrinking military advantage is necessarily a dangerous thing for the country or—whether it is or isn’t dangerous—that there is some set amount of money we could spend that would guarantee vast military superiority for all time given China’s rise to a major power and the broader availability of technology. Some analysts believe the problem isn’t that the U.S. doesn’t spend enough but that it spends on the wrong stuff.
And even if there were a magic sum the U.S. could spend to stay a mile ahead of everyone—keep in mind that the massive spending increase Trump will propose is nearly $40 billion shy of the boost the conservative Heritage Foundation advocated in 2013—that certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t something better the U.S. might spend it on.
The home front
Given the mammoth defense budget and the large share of it that is spent not on paying soldiers or sailors but on weapons and other equipment, it’s not surprising that some amount of the Pentagon largesse ends up in New York City (even though New York State is in the middle of the pack among the 50 states when it comes to the economic impact of the military).
A quick check of the Defense Department’s contracting database reveals these deals approved in calendar 2016 involving city-based entities:
Trans-Packers Services, Brooklyn: a five-year, $22,144,819 deal for ready-to-eat meals. “Using customers are Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and federal civilian agencies.”
Mil-Spec Enterprises, Brooklyn, New York: a one- to four-year, $53,578,875 deal for “improved outer tactical vests, generation IV.”
Yoland Corp., Brooklyn: five-year, $18,730,839 contract for 60mm, 81mm, 120mm, and 155mm main and drogue mortar and artillery parachutes.
GMD Shipyard Corp., Brooklyn: part of a five-year, $147,796,715 deal for programmed and unprogrammed dry docking, cleaning, painting, repairs and modifications to Army and Army Reserve vessels on the East Coast of the U.S.
WSP USA Corp., Manhattan: A share of a five-year, $30,000,000 contract for architect engineering to support the medical research facilities at U.S. Army Medical Command.