In recent weeks, Trump has been telling a new “sir” story.
As you may have suspected from the two “sir”s or from the substance of the story, Trump’s claim is a severe exaggeration.
“No general or admiral would say this,” Hertling said in an email. “They might say they have concerns, or if they were asked to attack a country (say, for instance, North Korea), that a major constraint would be they didn’t have the right amount of ammunition to hit all targets (like, say, all the 10,000 artillery pieces hidden in caves in North Korea, or all the potential rocket sites), but then they would give their requirements.”
As Hertling noted, however, there are some real facts underlying the dubious tale.
What the military has said about munitions levels
According to military leaders, there was a shortfall in certain kinds of munitions, particularly precision-guided bombs, late in the Obama presidency and early in the Trump presidency — after the US used tens of thousands of these munitions in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Critics of US military intervention abroad might note that one way the US could address a bomb shortage is by doing less bombing. Regardless, Trump wasn’t making the whole thing up: Military leaders did make clear that they thought that the US was lower on certain munitions than it should be, though none of them publicly said anything like “we don’t have ammunition.”
How bad was it?
It has never been clear how dire or how unusual the perceived shortage was, since the military does not release comprehensive data about ammunition levels. Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who specializes in defense strategy, said “no claims like Trump’s should be taken at face value,” but that we don’t have the information to assess his claims in depth.
“The military generally does have some ‘shortages’ of ammunition, relative to formal goals and preferred levels, at any given time — more often than not,” O’Hanlon said in an email.
Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, said that while inventories of some munitions, like Hellfire missiles and Joint Direct Attack Munitions, were “stretched thin” from heavy use in the ISIS conflict and in Afghanistan, the Defense Department “has requested (and received) more money to restock its inventories, and the manufacturers of these weapons have ramped up production to fill these new orders.”
“So while it was a concern, it never became an operational issue as far as I can tell,” Harrison said in an email.
Hertling explained that there is “ALWAYS concern” about having insufficient ammunition to fight multiple wars simultaneously; this, he said, is not an issue that will go away.
“The truth of the matter is that there isn’t enough to go around, and when priorities are shifted it would be a logistics challenge to get the right type and right amount of ammo (and other logistics/equipment) to the commander who found himself in a fight,” he said.
CNN’s Ryan Browne contributed to this report.