When he announced he wouldn’t run for reelection, House Speaker Paul Ryan cited his role in increasing defense spending as one of his two major accomplishments (the other was cutting taxes). The speaker justified these massive hikes in the FY2018 defense budget—which brought total defense spending to $700 billion—by referencing the tragic deaths of 17 sailors on the Navy destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS John McCain, as well as two Navy airmen in an F/A-18 crash off of Key West and seven servicemen in a March helicopter crash in Iraq.
In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in January, Ryan claimed that 80 lives were lost to military training accidents in 2017, more than four times the number lost in combat. In his view, these accidents were caused by a readiness crisis that resulted from the cuts imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. On March 22, as Congress was getting ready to vote on the $1.3 trillion FY2018 discretionary budget, Ryan, who is normally not involved in the defense debate, went even further. He claimed that in the past week alone nine more Americans had lost their lives because of this lack of funding. And in the week after the budget passed, four more military aircraft crashed, killing five more military personnel and spurring several more military experts to support Ryan’s view.
Ryan’s statements indicate a lack of understanding over the relationship between the size and distribution of the defense budget and training accidents. For example, in 1985 at the peak of the Reagan defense buildup, more than 1,400 military people died in these types of accidents. Similarly, a decade later when the defense budget hit its post-Cold War low, the number of deaths declined by more than half to 433 in 1997.
Moreover, even if we accept Ryan’s reasons for increasing the FY2018 defense budget by $56 billion over the administration’s request to $700 billion, very little of the extra money will actually go to addressing readiness. For example, Congress added $3 billion to the Navy’s ship building request, $3.3 billion to the Missile Defense Program, 20 additional F-35’s, 10 F/A-18’s, and 8 V-22’s, but only $853 million, or less than 1 percent, to the O&M (Operations and Maintenance) account, which funds maintenance and training.
What people like the speaker need to realize is that accidents happen on the path to ensuring our military is ready to carry out its current and future missions. One of the reasons the services provide hazardous duty pay to aviators (which I received) is because there is a risk in flying planes even on routine training missions.
Therefore, Ryan and his colleagues should not have supported large increases in defense spending on the basis that it will eliminate non-combat deaths. In fact, by historical standards the 80 non-combat deaths in 2017 is a comparatively low number, far less than a decade ago when 465 died in training accidents. And during the Cold War more than 1,000 men and women died each year, more than in combat during the Korean War and almost as many as died in Vietnam. It would seem that more money, not less, correlates with the high number of accidents each year.
Ryan’s argument that readiness has been impacted by reductions in the defense budget caused by the Budget Control Act is also without merit. Over the past four years, the Pentagon received more than $200 billion in relief from the Budget Control Act. In addition it used about half of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO, or war fighting) account, or another $100 billion, to fund items that have nothing to do with our current conflicts.
Finally, there is no readiness crisis. Even though the generals and admirals who run the services routinely complain about it, the senior enlisted leaders on the front lines of combat who suffer the most casualties in wartime say it is overblown. General David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon agree. Both argue that our military not only doesn’t have a readiness crisis, but is “awesome” and does not need large increases.
What Speaker Ryan and his successor should focus on is the exploding national debt, which used to be a priority for Ryan, and which Admiral Michael Mullen, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Bush and Obama, calls the greatest threat to our national security. They should also take a look at the waste and mismanagement in the Defense Department, which has still neither issued nor passed a clean audit since Congress mandated it do so 28 years ago.
Dr. Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and served as assistant secretary of defense from 1981 through 1985.