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Can the U.S. Military Build a Border Wall Even as It Struggles to Rebuild Itself?

Do you think the U.S. military should be in charge of building a wall on the southern border?

by ProPublica | Updated on 1.9.19

by Joe Sexton

In late March 2018, President Donald Trump and then-Defense Secretary James Mattis discussed the idea that the U.S. military could help the president achieve one of his cherished aims: The Pentagon would build a wall across the country’s southern border.

“Securing Americans and securing the nation is of paramount importance to the secretary,” the Pentagon press secretary at the time, Dana White, said of the discussions with Trump. “They have talked about it, but I don’t have any more details as to specifics.”

In the weeks and months that followed, a variety of reports seemed to raise questions about whether the U.S. military was in any position to be dedicating money or personnel to a border wall. There was, for instance, an April 2018 Government Accountability Office report wondering whether the military even had adequate data to assess its own state of combat readiness.

In October, there came a more sweeping report from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. In its 2019 “Index of U.S. Military Strength,” what the foundation bills as its comprehensive annual assessment of America’s military power, the organization concluded: “As currently postured, the U.S. military is only marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests.”

Among the report’s highlights:

  • The Air Force and Marine Corps both received “weak” readiness ratings, with the Air Force mired in a crippling shortage of fighter pilots (more than 1,000) and fighter aircraft (nearly 300). The average fighter pilot is currently flying fewer than two times a week, severely degrading combat readiness of the force.
  • Of the U.S. Army’s 31 brigade combat teams, the building blocks of American ground combat power, only 15 are considered “ready” and only eight of those are “fully ready.” Army leaders have said it could be 2022 before the service gets to its goal of two-thirds of its active BCTs ready.
  • The Marine Corps maintained its 2018 “weak” comprehensive rating, with approximately half of its amphibious ship and tactical aircraft fleets unavailable for current operations.

In the Heritage Foundation’s news release about the report, Tom Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense and a retired Army lieutenant general, said: “There can be no doubt — the U.S. military is still too small, insufficiently ready, and under-modernized. Despite recent, much-needed increases in the defense budget, rebuilding will take years. The consistent theme across the services has been one of degraded readiness, outdated equipment and overburdened service members.”

The state of America’s military readiness is no abstract question. A year before the 2018 Heritage Foundation report on military strength, the Navy suffered back-to-back disasters when 17 sailors died in two accidents involving destroyers in the vaunted Seventh Fleet. The state of the fleet’s readiness came in for withering critiques in the aftermath of the accidents.

“In general, we’re asking too few ships to do too many things,” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said at a meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee after the Navy produced a series of reports on the fatal accidents.

John McCain, the Republican Arizona senator who died last year, said, according to a report in The New York Times: “We’ve deprived them of the funds to do it. We’re putting those men and women in harm’s way to be wounded or killed because we refuse to give them the sufficient training and equipment and readiness. It’s a failure of Congress. It’s on us.”

There are, of course, competing cases for what the U.S. military most needs, and more money isn’t the be-all and end-all.

Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator and all-but-declared candidate for the presidency in 2020, made such a case in an essay recently in Foreign Affairs magazine.

“The United States will spend more than $700 billion on defense in the 2018–19 fiscal year alone,” she wrote. “That is more in real terms than was spent under President Ronald Reagan during the Cold War and more than all the rest of the country’s discretionary budget put together. But even as Washington spends more and more, U.S. military leaders point out that funding a muscular military without robust diplomacy, economic statecraft, support for civil society, and development assistance only hamstrings American national power and undercuts any military gains.”

The wisdom of the military taking responsibility for building a southern border wall is front and center again. Trump is scheduled to address the nation Tuesday night, and he is said to be considering declaring a national emergency in order to make way for the military to build the wall.

A report in The Washington Post on Monday laid out what might happen if Trump moves forward with this:

The president’s suggestion that he can build the wall by declaring a national emergency would likely hinge on a little-known section of the U.S. Code governing the military. Section 2808 gives the defense secretary the authority to undertake military construction projects ‘not otherwise authorized by law’ to support any troops deployed in a national emergency requiring the use of the armed forces.
The law limits the spending in such cases. The Pentagon can draw upon only the money that Congress has appropriated for military construction projects but which has yet to be committed by contract to projects. These are known as unobligated funds. Sometimes, they are not all spent.
According to a congressional aide, there is about $10 billion left in unobligated funds for military construction in the current fiscal year’s defense budget, in addition to some $13 billion that has rolled over from previous years. The money, however, has been appropriated for specific projects. This aide, and another one, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.
The Pentagon’s leadership would be forced to decide which of the projects in various stages of completion should see their funds diverted or cut, according to the congressional aide and a defense official.

Since taking office two years ago, Trump has touted his commitment to increasing military spending. A budget Trump signed into law committed $700 billion in 2018 and $716 billion in 2019 to the Defense Department. The figures represent about a $100 billion bump from 2017. In a tweet, Trump declared that “our military is again rich.”

Even then, he seemed to be keen on the military using its alleged riches to get involved in the wall.

In the final line of his tweet saluting how flush he said the military was, Trump wrote, “Build WALL through M!”

Will Fischer, director of government relations for VoteVets, a liberal veterans advocacy group, said he thought any military involvement in the construction of a border wall would have consequences for the Pentagon’s state of readiness.

“Once again, the military is being used as a prop,” Fischer said, adding he thought their only priority ought to be “training for the fight at hand, for real threats.”

However, Gordon Adams, professor emeritus at the School of International Service at American University who was the senior White House budget official for national security from 1993 to 1997, said he doubted any military commitment to building the wall would have a direct effect on readiness.

“I don’t think it will be done by the military; they won’t deploy active-duty military,” Adams said. “The way it’ll work in the real world is it will probably be the Army Corps of Engineers that oversees it and the private contractors doing it.

Adams said the Pentagon typically had $15 billion or $20 billion “worth of balances” for projects like building bases, barracks or testing facilities.

“They would have to determine of all the funds assigned to projects, which of these can we reasonably defer,” he said. “It’d be a very indirect impact. The department always has a backlog of things it wants to build and repair. It never builds and repairs all the things it wants to build and repair, but it chugs along.”

Mattis, at the time of the budget signing, was also excited about the money available — but mainly for rebuilding lost capacity.

“We do intend to get the planes back in the air, fully staffed squadrons back in the air, ships back to sea and the new gear built,” Mattis said to reporters.

“It’ll take years,” he added.

The country may be about to find out what effect the military building a wall has on its effort to rebuild its fighting power.

ProPublica

Written by ProPublica

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Leave a comment
(123)
  • Chickie
    Voted No
    01/09/2019
    ···

    Recently, after ridiculing highly decorated USMC General James Mattis, #45 said, “I think I would have made a good general but who knows?” During his campaign, #45 liked to say his attendance at a private prep school gave him, “more training militarily than a lot of guys that go into the military”. Compared to #45’s comment that he could “relate” to the financial loss Federal employees are experiencing due to HIS government shutdown, his self-appointed military greatness is delusional, but not a surprise. Using military members to build #45’s useless monument to himself is a waste of resources. No Wall. No taxpayer monies for The Wall. PERIOD!

    Like (19)
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  • Daniel
    01/09/2019
    ···

    Our infrastructure needs to be taken care of. Bridges and roads are in terrible shape. We do not need to waste money on Trump’s vanity wall.

    Like (12)
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  • Leon
    Voted Maybe
    01/09/2019
    ···

    The engineer corps would be great at this.

    Like (8)
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  • TexasTRex
    Voted Yes
    01/09/2019
    ···

    Anything! Just build the wall!

    Like (5)
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  • John
    Voted No
    01/09/2019
    ···

    There should be NO WALL! And, the military is not the construction company for the Orange Motherfucker.

    Like (13)
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  • Ronald
    Voted Yes
    01/09/2019
    ···

    We must be able to trust Our Military to devise, build, or supervise the building of a barrier both tactically, and strategic effective for securing Our Border. Not building the Wall us not an option.

    Like (5)
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  • ConservativeGuy
    01/12/2019
    ···

    So, you’re admitting that the Obama Administration decimates the military?

    Like (4)
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  • Sean
    Voted Maybe
    01/09/2019
    ···

    Well we can’t count on our incompetent congress to do anything to protect us. As a veteran I would gladly help build the wall. Our military is responsible for protecting American citizens whether domestic or foreign. This would constitute as protecting American lives. Anyone who says a wall is ineffective needs to learn what a wall is. Of course it will stop the flow of illegal immigration. It will save lives on both sides and funnel asylum seekers to a port of entry for legal entry.

    Like (3)
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  • David
    Voted No
    01/09/2019
    ···

    Trump is not in charge of his private corporation, although he he seems to think the United States government is and he acts as such. The military is not here to build walls, that is not their job, and that is not what military funds are designated for within the United States. Border security we need, a wall we do not. Where a wall is needed it is already in place. The Republican story here will actually make a good comedy routine someday.

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  • OlderNWiser
    Voted No
    01/09/2019
    ···

    What an incredible waste of our military, waste of money, and, ominously, how alarming that a man who wants to be our dictator is attempting to control the military personally.

    Like (9)
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  • BlueSphere
    Voted No
    01/09/2019
    ···

    Quote: “As currently postured, the U.S. military is only marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests.” - Heritage Foundation Makes no sense to use the military to build a useless wall when the focus should be on real world readiness. It’s insulting, really, to the members of our armed forces.

    Like (6)
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  • Glowurm
    Voted No
    01/13/2019
    ···

    NO WALL!

    Like (6)
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  • RAN
    Voted Yes
    01/09/2019
    ···

    We desperately need the wall, military, private, just build it!

    Like (5)
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  • SamJenkins
    Voted No
    01/09/2019
    ···

    Building a wall is not a way to increase military readiness. It would be a waste of taxpayer money and the time of the military.

    Like (5)
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  • Tinee
    Voted No
    01/09/2019
    ···

    No wall. A wall will not stop anyone willing to risk their life to stand on USA soil. A wall will not stop someone that has a Visa from staying after it expires. A wall goes against everything the Statue of Liberty stands for.

    Like (4)
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  • RjGoodman
    Voted No
    01/09/2019
    ···

    The military has independently documented they are only marginally able to defend our national interests. With the traditional threats (China & Russia’s military increases) and unconventional threats (Cyber-attacks, bioterrorism) the military needs to focus on its own issues and not the work of a project that has not gone through the proper funding channel. Damn it, if Trump wants a wall, let him run it through the Homeland Security budgeting process. Show us how it fits into the Homeland Security strategic plan. If it doesn’t, embrace something else that does and sell that to Ann Coulter & Newt Gingrich...

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  • Sandra
    Voted No
    01/09/2019
    ···

    Trump is on TV ....again....Big Surprise...and is STILL doing the same schtick....."If I repeat something enough times, sooner or later, people will think it's true."

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  • Cosmo
    Voted Yes
    01/09/2019
    ···

    This question highlights how little the individual knows about our military. The Cuban/ Russian conflict required the movement of troops to Puerto Rico. Thousands of troops, support materials, ships, air force runways, housing etc. In 72 hours it was accomplished. We’re much better at doing the impossible in a short amount of time. The American Military is the greatest in the world and yes we can do more than one, two,three even four major National Country concerns without stressing out capabilities. Build the wall. Place electronic tools where they work. Don’t let the Democrats draw this out to 2020. Closing our boarder to illegals is what Americans want.

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  • Sandra
    Voted No
    01/09/2019
    ···

    With crossings the lowest in years (if not decades) and most of the drugs coming thru airports...the Wall is not NOT needed and I'm sure the Military has better things to do. Trump has got to stop running his "presidency" like an eight year old playing Risk.

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  • Phil
    Voted No
    01/09/2019
    ···

    Our Military is not Trump’s “in-house” Contractor. Let’s get people...VOTERS...back to work and stop the nonsense over an ineffective wall. Our Military serves to DEFEND us. Due Diligence must be used, going forward, to discover the identities of ANY Companies who are granted construction contracts for this “ Wall”...however it gets spun.

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