President Trump has made numerous claims in recent days that he has completely updated the U.S. military’s equipment and suggested it is well-prepared for a major military conflict with Iran. But his comments grossly overstate spending decisions and mask an aging fleet of planes.
On Sunday, Trump tweeted that “The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment” and that if necessary he would use it to hit Iran “very fast and very hard.”
The actual amount spent on military equipment since he became president is much less, closer to $420 billion, according to Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The rest was spent on things like personnel, operations and maintenance, and research and development.
Trump made similar exaggerations on Christmas Eve, during a phone call with Lt. Col. Daniel Wassmuth, the commander of the 20th Attack Squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Trump told Wasumuth that as of three years ago “you didn’t have brand-new airplanes. You were not doing well. And now you have all brand new.”
This also is false.
The Pentagon under President Trump has been bulk-buying F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in larger orders than it had before, inking a $34 billion order that officials called the largest weapons deal in U.S. military history. That weapons deal was among several large purchases that came in the first three years of Trump’s tenure, along with investments in military training aircraft and aerial refueling drones.
The U.S. military still relies on many older planes, however, and the typical aircraft in the Air Force’s fleet is almost 30 years old, according to figures published by the Office of Management and Budget. Several hundred planes have been in service more than 50 years.
“The U.S. Air Force is the smallest, the oldest and the least ready that it’s been since its founding in 1947,” said Dave Deptula, a retired Air Force General who now serves as Dean of the Air Force Association-funded Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The U.S. government spends more money on its military by far than any other nation, but the funding is spread out among many different programs and priorities, not all of which would come to bear during a potential conflict in the Middle East. Trump’s claims about the military are coming under sharper scrutiny now because of the mounting tensions in Iraq and Iran.
These tensions underscore larger uncertainty about the administration’s strategy after killing Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s top military commanders, and how the White House is preparing for unrest now unfolding in the region.
In an apparent effort to discourage Iran from taking action after Soleimani’s death, Trump issued his directive on Sunday that overstated the equipment purchases.
“The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment," he wrote. "We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way...and without hesitation!”
A spokesperson for the White House Office of Management and Budget said the president wasn’t referring just to equipment, but to the overall combined defense budget for 2017-2019.
Overall, defense spending increased 16 percent from 2016 through 2019, as Trump sought a big increase for military programs. The percentage of the defense budget spent on procurement also has increased, said Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But despite his current claims, Trump has wavered at times on continuing to expand the military’s budget. In late 2018, amid criticism about the widening budget deficit, Trump complained that the size of the defense budget was “crazy.” He mused at a Cabinet meeting about paring it back. This prompted an intervention by senior Republicans and then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who convinced him to reverse course.
“He has not been consistent about this,” Harrison said.
Overall, the defense budget has grown because of deals struck with Democrats in exchange for large increases in domestic spending that the White House opposed. The $1.4 trillion spending deal for 2020 that became law in December includes around $695 billion for the Pentagon, an increase of about $19 billion from the 2019 level.
American Enterprise Institute defense analyst MacKenzie Eaglen noted that for Trump, support for defense spending is good politics. Key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin are home to large defense manufacturing facilities.
All of the services still suffer from readiness challenges as aging aircraft become more expensive to maintain, defense analysts said. And some procurement experts believe readiness problems may actually have worsened, far from disappearing entirely, in Trump’s tenure.
The Air Force’s overall mission capable rate – a figure that measures the percentage of planes that are ready to perform their designated missions at a given time – has fallen from 77.9 percent in 2012 to 69.9 percent in 2018, according to statistics published by the Air Force Times.
That rate has fallen slightly in each year of Trump’s presidency even as defense spending has increased. An Air Force spokeswoman called that measure “just one factor that the Air Force considers as it assesses readiness," adding that the service successfully completed all of its operational tasks last-year.
Dan Grazier, a former Marine Corps captain who now works at the Project on Government Oversight, said he thinks the Pentagon is “definitely getting less bang for our buck,” in part because it is spending too much money on super-complex weapons systems that are expensive to maintain.
“We’ve dramatically increased spending over the last couple of years, but we have a smaller force than we did before,” Grazier said, referring to troop levels, and “we don’t necessarily have the capability increase that we would expect with that level of investment.”
The F-35s, for example, has been described as “flying computers” because they are packed with complex surveillance technology designed to network them into the Air Force’s other assets.
In a mark of the tremendous cost of maintaining the next-generation aircraft, on Monday the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin announced they had finalized a $1.9 billion contract for support services. In a statement announcing the deal, Lockheed Martin F-35 program manager Greg Ulmer said the company is “confident F-35 sustainment costs will be equal or less than” older jets.
But the readiness of some of these planes has been called into question. In mid-November the Government Accountability Office reported that only about a third of the U.S. military’s F-35 fighter jets are capable of flying all of the missions they were designed for, even though they are brand new and haven’t seen heavy combat.