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WASHINGTON ― An exasperated Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador, laid into Vivek Ramaswamy — a former biotech CEO with no experience as an elected official — over his lack of foreign policy credentials during the first Republican presidential primary debate in August.
Haley accused Ramaswamy of seeking to appease U.S. adversaries while abandoning Washington’s security partners.
“He wants to hand Ukraine to Russia,” she said. “He wants to let China eat Taiwan. He wants to go and stop funding Israel.”
Ramaswamy’s retort was brief and personal. “I wish you well in your future career on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon,” he said.
The disdain between the two presidential aspirants has been on full display in every debate since — part of a heated presidential primary that remains overshadowed by former President Donald Trump. At its core are two competing visions within Republican politics about the future of America’s role in the world.
Haley champions the party’s traditional Reaganite “peace through strength” orthodoxy that backs large defense budgets and military support for friendly countries, while Ramaswamy’s vision echoes Trump’s “America First” school of thought.
Trump, the unquestioned front-runner in the race despite his numerous federal and state indictments, has so far declined to participate in any debates this cycle. Still, he looms large over the party’s future, from the presidential primary to the halls of Congress to the conservative institutions laying the groundwork for what they hope is his eventual return to office.
In the process, America First fiscal hawks are crowding out the traditional Reaganite Republicans in the party’s biggest shift since the beginning of the Cold War. These world views aren’t simply philosophical; they have significant consequences for U.S. support of allies and partners abroad, future defense spending levels, Pentagon acquisition policy and scrutiny of its financial management, and whether or not the White House uses the military as a tool to quell domestic opposition.
“This is the biggest change in the Republican Party’s foreign policy thinking since probably the 1940s,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, told Defense News, pointing to Trump’s 2016 election attacks on former President George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We were really seeing not just a temporary, tactical political change, but a historic change in how the Republican Party thought about defense; instead of just instinctively wrapping themselves in the flag and always thinking more was better, but starting to question some of the basic national security management of the United States, even including their own Republican presidents.”
While Trump as president initially championed large military budget increases, a growing contingent of America First fiscal hawks in Congress are calling for a more skeptical examination of Pentagon spending, sidelining traditional Republican defense hawks.
Mainstream conservative institutions are also calling for more scrutiny of the defense budget, especially the massive amounts of Ukraine spending, even as they reportedly draft executive orders to deploy the military inward against demonstrators on U.S. streets starting on Day 1 of a second Trump term.
“For the first at least 24 months of his presidency, [Trump’s] military budgets were getting stronger and he had positive things to say about the military,” Thomas Spoehr, the former director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, told Defense News. “Then at the two-and-a-half year mark, that suddenly started to change.”
Trump proposed a $677.1 billion defense budget for fiscal 2018, $726.8 billion for FY19, $761.8 billion for FY20 and $753.5 billion for FY21.
“The military budgets started to become relatively flat, and the president was much more critical of the military, especially its leadership,” said Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general. “He was also very critical about how the [Defense Department] was managing a lot of its acquisition programs — probably some of the criticisms [were] warranted, others not so much.”
For instance, he derided former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as “the world’s most overrated general” after Mattis resigned in protest of the president’s plan to withdraw American troops from Syria — something Trump eventually walked back following Turkish attacks on U.S.-supported Kurdish forces in the northeast of the war-torn country.
Additionally, Trump repeatedly lambasted the Navy for using an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, on Ford-class carriers, saying the service should return to using “goddamned steam” catapults.
A 2017 assessment from the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office found the EMALS would cost $814 million more than initially estimated when the contract began in 2004. But if the Navy had switched to steam catapults per Trump’s wish, it would have incurred billions more in additional costs, as it would necessitate a redesign of the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
Trump noted on Fox News in July that as president he told European leaders “I will not protect you from Russia” if they were “delinquent” on NATO contributions. He also opposes U.S. economic and military aid to Ukraine as it fights Russia’s invasion.
Much of the conservative establishment has adopted the former president’s stance. Indeed, Spoehr resigned as Heritage’s defense director because he didn’t agree with the think tank’s opposition to Ukraine aid. He has since been replaced by Robert Greenway, a former special forces officer who served as the senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs on Trump’s National Security Council.
During a Heritage Foundation podcast in September, Greenway stressed the need to balance a strong defense budget with weeding out “waste and abuse.”
“We have to have transparency; we have to have efficiency; and we cannot spend, as many presidents have said, like drunken sailors,” Greenway said.
The base defense budget now stands at $857.9 billion, accounting for slightly more than half of all discretionary spending. Total defense spending for FY23 came to $893 billion, including $35.4 billion in Ukraine aid.
Meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation is the lead think tank on Project 2025, a coalition of at least 80 conservative institutions with close ties to Trump that seeks to outline the agenda for a Republican president.
Project 2025 has issued a nearly 900-page blueprint detailing conservative policy priorities across the federal government, should a Republican retake the White House. The coalition is also developing draft executive orders to invoke the Insurrection Act, allowing Trump or a future Republican president to deploy the military against civil demonstrations, The Washington Post reported in November.
Additionally, the coalition advocates for firing up to 50,000 nonpartisan, career federal workers across the government and replacing them with conservative loyalists. It’s unclear how many would come from the Defense Department’s more than 700,000 civilian workers.
Neither the Heritage Foundation nor Project 2025 responded to Defense News’ requests for comment.
Trump’s former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller wrote the Defense Department section for the Project 2025 transition blueprint. The section refers to the department as “a deeply troubled institution,” pointing to “wasteful spending, wildly shifting security policies [and] exceedingly poor discipline in program execution,” among a litany of other issues.
It labels Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a threat, but points to China as “by far the most significant danger” to the U.S. from abroad while highlighting “ill-advised military operations in the Greater Middle East, the atrophy of our defense industrial base, the impact of sequestration and effective disarmament by many U.S. allies.”
The Project 2025 transition document doesn’t make recommendations on a defense budget top line, though it emphasizes greater burden-sharing with partners and allies. But Miller released a memoir in February that argued the U.S. should cut military spending by 40% to 50% to “end American adventurism and retool our military to face the challenges of the next century.”
O’Hanlon said a cut of that magnitude “could be a recipe for absolute catastrophe,” arguing “you’ve basically given up on the competition with China over being able to protect Taiwan.”
“Anyone who looks at Pentagon waste over the years, we know full well there’s a lot of it. But if you take a meat cleaver and cut the defense budget, you’re cutting off the muscle along with the fat,” O’Hanlon said.
Meanwhile, Trump-aligned Republicans in the House have highlighted the Defense Department’s bookkeeping troubles, convening a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing in July titled “Addressing Financial Accountability in the Department of Defense,” where they made several of the same points on the budget as progressive Democrats.
Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., who chairs the committee’s national security panel, noted the Pentagon has never passed an audit, failing six consecutive times.
“The U.S. spends more on defense than China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, the U.K., Germany, France, South Korea, Japan and Ukraine combined,” Grothman said. “The American people work diligently to earn every dollar, but it seems the [Defense Department] has become a master of squandering those funds without batting an eye.”
Luke Strange, the government relations director at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told Defense News that raising defense spending would “require more political will in both chambers as the top line kicks up toward $1 trillion.”
“That’s a number members have at the back of their minds that’s going to require a justified harder look at the way acquisition is done and giving members some assurance that they’re getting better value for defense dollars if they’re going to spend that amount of money,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has continued to champion increased defense spending and support for Ukraine, but also found himself at odds with the GOP-controlled House.
McConnell has argued most Ukraine military aid goes to U.S. defense contractors, not abroad, as the Pentagon backfills equipment it sent Kyiv from its stockpiles.
“The emergency investments we’ve made in the U.S. defense-industrial base as a result of Russia’s war on Ukraine are doubling production capacity of 155mm artillery rounds,” he said in November. “They’re driving a 40% increase in production of long-range precision fires, and nearly doubling capacity for air-to-air missiles.”
But even Senate Republicans supportive of Ukraine overruled him in September. That forced the leader to back down from a potential standoff with the House GOP amid its insistence on dropping $6 billion in Ukraine aid in order to pass a stopgap funding bill that would avoid a U.S. government shutdown.
Still, McConnell has convinced most Senate Republicans to work with Democrats as they try to pass a defense spending supplemental intended to circumvent the $886 billion national security spending cap in the May debt ceiling agreement.
The initial House Republican votes against the $113 billion worth of economic and military aid to Ukraine spread across four packages in 2022 were largely limited to members of the right-wing Freedom Caucus. Congress has yet to pass any additional Ukraine aid this year; a growing bloc of House Republicans, including some defense hawks, are opposed to more funding due to a lack of clear end goals as the war atrophies into a stalemate.
At 81, McConnell is much older than many of his America First colleagues in the House. He froze up at two separate press conferences earlier this year following separate falls in Finland and Washington, raising questions about his health and whether anyone else will be the standard bearer for Reaganite Republicans.
When Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., became House speaker in October, Republican defense hawks took some solace in the fact he represents a military-heavy district and sat on the Armed Services Committee.
But the narrow Republican House majority has necessitated Johnson walk the same tightrope as his predecessor Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. — balancing the demands of fiscal conservative and defense hawks.
Johnson voted against previous Ukraine aid packages, further stymying President Joe Biden’s efforts to persuade Congress to pass another $61 billion tranche of assistance for Kyiv. He also opted to offset Biden’s $14.3 billion request for Israel military aid amid the war in the Gaza Strip with an equal amount in cuts to the Internal Revenue Service, prompting the House to pass it mostly along party lines — only for Senate Democrats to ignore it.
And during his own short-lived speakership, McCarthy repeatedly shot down the prospects of the House passing additional defense spending beyond the top line in the debt ceiling deal. During that time, he also took jabs at ballooning defense spending.
Asked by a reporter whether he thought aliens were responsible for the recent spate of military UFO sightings, he quipped about the Pentagon budget.
“I will continue to see, but I think if we had found a UFO, I think the Department of Defense would tell us because they probably want to request more money,” McCarthy said, according to The Hill.
Despite dropping Ukraine aid from the stopgap funding bill, a small group of Freedom Caucus-aligned Republicans ultimately ousted him from the speakership for relying on Democratic support needed to pass the bipartisan measure.
“[McCarthy] made all sorts of commitments which were at odds with growing defense spending and aid to Ukraine,” Spoehr said. “What you’re seeing is a man trying to keep his promises to these people in order to become speaker.”
Seamus Daniels, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, cautioned that “the balance between fiscal hawks and defense hawks in the Republican party fluctuates overtime.”
“The thing to take away going into this election is that there is this focus within the Republican Party on reducing the deficit. But what we’ve seen is that could certainly change if the Republican Party takes the White House, and there may be less of a focus on the deficit,” Daniels told Defense News.
In the meantime, many Democrats have sought to portray Republicans as weak on defense, marking somewhat of a reversal of roles between the two parties in the decades following the Cold War.
“Both parties have been hawkish on national security. And of course ever since Vietnam, Republicans have used national security as a bludgeon against Democrats,” O’Hanlon said.
When Democrats held both chambers of Congress in 2021 and 2022, they worked with Republican hawks to pursue large plus-ups to Biden’s defense budget proposals.
The White House and Democratic appropriators have dinged House Republicans as weak on China for declining to fully fund all seven munitions the Pentagon asked to buy using multiyear contracts, a mechanism usually reserved for procurement of big-ticket items like ships.
Still, Republican appropriators funded multiyear buys for five of the seven requested munitions. They had concerns about funding multiyear contracts for the Navy’s Standard Missile-6 and Air Force’s Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile because of previous cost variations and delays during earlier contracts for those munitions with RTX, formerly Raytheon Technologies.
Democrats have typically demanded parity between defense and nondefense discretionary spending in yearly budget negotiations.
“There is a wariness among the GOP’s fiscal conservatives of defense being used as this pry bar to open up the federal cash box,” Spoehr said. “The realization of that really didn’t take hold in fiscal conservatives until the last two or three years, and I think that is at the root of a lot of this skepticism that you see among certain members of the House GOP.”