To state it extremely generously, Donald Trump’s supposed support of the men and women serving in our military, and their families, is superficial. He does say he supports the military — a lot. But what he actually does paints a grossly different picture.
Trump said in 2018 that the amount set aside in the nation’s next budget for the military would be the “most amount ever.” That was a lie. The Defense Authorization Act Trump signed for fiscal year 2019 included a Pentagon budget of $716 billion, far less than the historically high $950 billion budget (in today’s money) that was set aside for the U.S. military to close out World War II in 1945. Trump’s supposedly record-setting military budget wasn’t even as much as the $726 billion Obama designated for the military in 2011.
Another oft-repeated Trump lie is that he gave military personnel their first raise in 10 years. In fact, the troops have gotten a raise every year since 1983, and every year since 1961, if you discount an administrative quirk in 1983. To be fair, the military pay increases of 2.4 percent and 2.6 percent in 2018 and 2019, respectively, were among the largest of the last 10 years, although they still pale in comparison to the 3.4 percent military pay increase President Obama signed into law for 2010. I guess it’s the least Trump can do in return for diverting servicemembers to his failing golf resort in Scotland.
The most recent, and probably highest profile, example of Trump using the troops as a political cudgel while simultaneously picking their pockets is the $3.6 billion in military funding he diverted to build his border wall. Among other things, this money was supposed to have gone to construct military training facilities, hangars, arms ranges, and schools for children on bases.
While it’s cruel and wasteful to take away money meant to help educate the children of America’s servicemembers and put it toward a border wall that even the Cato Institute agrees we don’t need, at least that move had a purpose behind it. But in one of the dumbest tweets of a presidency rife with dumb tweets, it seems Trump recently severely impaired the utility of a $2.5 billion U.S. military spy satellite for no real reason at all.
On August 30, Trump tweeted an image of an Iranian rocket launch pad, apparently in an attempt to troll Iran about their recent failed satellite launch. Although Trump did not say where the image came from, people who can do calculus immediately figured out that it was almost certainly from an American military satellite known as USA 224 that was launched in 2011. Satellites are visible to anyone with a powerful enough telescope and a dark enough backyard. While satellite watchers had already been able to see USA 224 gliding overhead, and were able to calculate its orbit, they otherwise knew next to nothing about the highly classified object.
But Trump’s August 30 tweet all but confirmed that USA 224 is one of America’s multibillion-dollar KH-11 spy satellites. Amateur researchers were able to use the shadows in the image Trump tweeted as sun dials to verify the time at which the image was taken. The Iranian launch pad was directly below the calculated orbit of where USA 224 was at the time.
Melissa Hanham, a Viennese satellite imagery expert interviewed by NPR, said she was amazed by the clarity of the image, given that the high speed of satellites and the fact that they must peer down through miles of atmosphere tend to blur satellite images. “I imagine adversaries are going to take a look at this image and reverse-engineer it to figure out how the sensor itself works and what kind of post-production techniques they’re using,” she told NPR news.
While there has been speculation that a handful of images released publicly by the military in the 90s came from much earlier versions of KH-11 satellites, before Trump’s tweet, the only definitively known examples of KH-11 satellite images were those leaked to a British military magazine by a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst in 1984. For releasing those images, the analyst served two years in prison for espionage.
We can and should have a real debate about how we use military resources, what military funding priorities should be, and where we can trim the fat off the military budget. But lying about military spending, raiding military funds to prop up pointless vanity projects, and recklessly tweeting intel about our expensive spy satellites are not good ways to go about it.
Jonathan Wolf is a litigation associate at a midsize, full-service Minnesota firm. He also teaches as an adjunct writing professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, has written for a wide variety of publications, and makes it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.