Former Marine Corps captain says Trump defense budget is 'less bang for more bucks'

F-35 aircraft aboard the USS America, an amphibious assault ship for the Navy.
Andy Wolfe | US Navy

If Americans think more defense spending will make them safer they should think again, according to a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Just because you're spending more on the military doesn't mean we're going to have a more effective military force," said Dan Grazier, a former Marine captain and defense industry expert at the Project On Government Oversight, a Washington watchdog group. "That has proved true throughout history."

President Donald Trump's fiscal 2018 budget blueprint calls for a $54 billion increase in national defense spending, which represents an increase of about 10 percent over the sequestered levels.

"If President Trump wants to truly rebuild the military, he should actually slash budgets," Grazier wrote in a POGO blog post Friday. "It would force the Pentagon and Congress to make the difficult choices necessary to produce a more effective fighting force."

He notes that if the fiscal 2018 budget plan gets approved in Congress it would mean total defense spending of nearly $640 billion, which includes $65 billion for so-called Overseas Contingency Operations war funding. When combining other national security spending and veterans costs, the government outlays represent more than $1 trillion per year, Grazier said.

In the budget document, the Trump administration stated "this defense funding is vital to rebuilding and preparing our armed forces for the future."

The White House's budget request said "key investments in maintenance capacity, training systems, and additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighters would enable the Air Force, which is now the smallest it has been in history, to counter the growing number of complex threats from sophisticated state actors and transnational terrorist groups."

President Donald Trump applauds aboard the pre-commissioned USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier in Newport News, Virginia, March 2, 2017.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Yet Grazier contended that just throwing more money at defense isn't the answer because "it is just going to get flushed down the typical Pentagon spending holes." In an interview, he said what matters most is "how you spend it — and we do not have a track record of spending it well."

Grazier added, "Basically, the Pentagon and defense contractors and their allies in Congress want to throw a whole lot money at these really complicated [weapons] systems and spread the subcontracts around the country."

On his blog, Grazier wrote that defense budgets during the Obama administration peaked in 2011 and went "down incrementally in the years since, but they remained higher than at any time during previous administrations, including at the peak of the Reagan buildup in the 1980s."

"What did we get for those massive budgets? We didn't get more fighter planes. We didn't get more ships," he said. "Almost every day we are bombarded with dire warnings from services that the force is the smallest it has ever been. For some people, there will never be enough spending on the Pentagon."

USS Gerald R. Ford built by Huntington Ingalls.

Indeed, on Thursday Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) criticized Trump's proposed top-line defense budget plan as simply not enough. He said in a press statement that the budget doesn't amount to the 10 percent increase as touted by the White House but is "a mere 3 percent over President Obama's defense plan, which has left our military underfunded, undersized, and unready to meet the threats of today and tomorrow."

According to Grazier, the Pentagon waste needs to be addressed and overhead too. Moreover, he believes there's a need to "reexamine a dependence on contractors that can cost as much as four times more than federal employees. But none of this will happen unless Congress forces these changes, and they can only do that by restraining budgets."

Grazier also said spending big money on some of the programs with a history of problems needs to be looked at more closely, including the F-35 stealth fighter, as well as the Navy's newest class of aircraft carriers, the Ford Class. Then there's the Navy's littoral combat ship program, which the U.S. Government Accountability Office in December concluded "has taken longer, cost more, and delivered less capability than expected."

"None of these systems are performing all that well," he said.

Trump recently visited the USS Gerald R. Ford super-carrier, built by Huntington Ingalls Industries for around $13 billion, or $2.5 billion over budget. The Ford-Class carrier program has a price tag of approximately $40 billion and there have been calls to scale back the program. Some critics suggest even the new carriers are vulnerable at sea.

The president wants to increase the Navy's fleet to 350 ships, up from today's force of 275 deployable battle ships. That will require the investment of nearly $700 billion over 30 years and there's some concern whether the shipyards can meet the goal due to shortages of skilled workers and other obstacles.

Grazier questions the decision by the Navy to use a new electromagnetic launch technology system for aircraft on the Ford-Class carriers instead of sticking with the steam-powered catapult system on the battle-tested Nimitz-Class carriers. Swapping out older systems has resulted in a "very large expense and the system does not work all that well yet," he said.

Meantime, the retired Marine officer also is critical of the F-35, a program projected to cost more than $1 trillion over its life cycle of about 53 years. He said the Pentagon's top weapons tester wrote a report detailing 60 pages of problems with the aircraft but it's essentially been ignored.

Trump has been complained about the cost of the F-35 and suggested the possibility of replacing some of the F-35 purchases with the "comparable F-18 Super Hornet." Lockheed Martin built three variants of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines.

The lot 10 deal for the F-35 was announced last month and cut the per-plane price on the F-35A (Air Force variant) to $94.6 million, or a 7.3 percent price reduction from the previous lot 9 terms. That marked the first time the F-35A had been below $100 million.

Even so, Grazier said the F-35 price still remains "vastly more expensive" compared with legacy fighters it is replacing. "We continue to get less bang for more bucks," he said. "Whether it's fighter planes or Navy ships or anything like that, they are always vastly more complicated than the one before. We spend more and more money for these things but we get fewer and fewer of them. So we keep getting these smaller and smaller forces."