On Friday, President Donald Trump signed an exceptionally important executive order initiating both the beginning of the rebuilding of the U.S. armed forces and the fulfillment of a campaign promise.
Because he signed this order on the same day he signed the order on immigration it hasn’t yet gotten the attention it deserves. That’s a shame.
The order, titled “Rebuilding the U.S. Armed Forces,” has not yet been officially posted to the White House website. But a draft of the order, accompanied by news reports, gives us enough details to be able to assess it.
The order directs Secretary of Defense James Mattis to conduct a 30-day review of the readiness of the armed forces to assess their ability to conduct the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS, and other forms of radical Islamic terrorism, as well as near peer competitors and regional adversaries.
This review is critically needed. The Heritage Foundation has been vocal in calling for such a review based on our independent assessment of the U.S. military.
The Heritage 2017 Index of U.S. Military Strength assessed our overall military capability as “marginal, trending towards weak” because of many years of budget cuts and overuse. Our assessment found that the U.S. Army today is the smallest it has been since the start of World War II; the Navy is the smallest it has been since World War I; and the Air Force suffers from crippling shortages of pilots and maintenance personnel. For example, the average age of the Air Force’s planes is 27 years old.
For too long the nation, and the president, has neglected the state of military readiness in favor of other priorities.
This 30-day review will allow the defense secretary and the president to establish the facts and determine the necessary priorities for the rebuilding of the military.
The order also calls for a review to “reduce commitments not directly related to the highest priority operations to make resources available for training and maintenance.” This is also overdue.
As described in the Heritage’s “Blueprint for Balance,” the Department of Defense spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on programs not directly related to military readiness such as non-military-related medical research, sustainable energy programs, and junior ROTC programs. Although there won’t be enough resources identified just through cuts and efficiencies to fix the Pentagon’s readiness problems, every little bit helps.
Perhaps most significantly, the order directs Mattis and the director of the Office of Budget and Management to develop both a new request for emergency funding for fiscal year 2017 and to revise the still-to-be-released budget request for 2018 to provide the increased funding needed to begin the rebuilding of the military.
That direction aligns with recommendations from both Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. McCain and Thornberry, the chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services committees, respectively, both have a clear-eyed view of the critical state of the U.S. military and have written persuasively on the need for additional defense funding.
Obtaining additional funding for defense will require some difficult negotiations within Congress and with the White House, but the need is so critical that failure to succeed is not a viable option.
Congress and the administration will need to establish concrete and measurable objectives for the rebuilding of our military so that the American taxpayer can be assured that every dollar applied to defense results in an improvement.
Finally, the executive order calls for a new nuclear posture and missile defense reviews, two critical defense areas that have both suffered considerably under the Obama administration. Heritage has been consistent and vocal in pointing out the need for new reviews and increased investment of our nation’s nuclear and missile defense domains.
Could all of these actions been undertaken without a presidential executive order? Certainly. But by signing this order, Trump has sent an unambiguous signal across his administration that the rebuilding of our military is one of his top priorities. Given the threats our nation faces today to its national interests, this sends exactly the right signal to both our allies and potential adversaries.