How President Trump Will Change America’s Military and Foreign Policy
For better or worse, America’s defense strategy and foreign policy are about to change drastically.
Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is our incoming Commander-In-Chief, and there is little doubt that he will bring great change with him. As President-elect, Trump will have to go instantaneously from being the CEO of a real estate, licensing and media company to the CEO of the federal government—with millions of employees instead of thousands. He will have to preside over the largest budget in the world, and countless programs and agencies—the Pentagon included—that together cost the US trillions of dollars a year. At the same time he will go from speaking almost entirely for himself to speaking for a nation of 320 million people, and he'll do it as the commander of the most powerful military on the planet.
Whether you woke up on November 9th excited for the future or extremely depressed and anxious about it, Donald Trump is our President-elect, and we should move forward together with open minds and give him a chance—because if he fails, we will all suffer. Besides, if there's one truism about the Presidency, it is that the weight of its responsibility can rapidly change the person who bears it. Trump is likely to be no different.
Given the limited policy information Trump and his campaign have put forward, it's hard to exactly predict what a Trump administration will mean for America’s defense posture and foreign policy. What little we know President Trump plans on doing right when he takes office is spelled out here. Still, we can take some good guesses based on his and his surrogates' statements on the campaign trail:
US Military Expansion
Although Trump’s plans for the US military have been largely anecdotal, it's clear that he will look to expand the size of each branch with a focus on increasing combat capacity above anything else. This is thought to include the expansion of the Army from 480,000 to 540,000 soldiers. Trump’s surrogates have also stated that the USMC will be increased as well, from around 180,000 Marines today to over 200,000.
Trump will seek to increase the US Navy’s fleet size to about 350 ships from around 300 today. A focus on increasing the number of high-end surface combatants is likely, including upgrading and redeploying Ticonderoga class cruisers that have been sidelined for financial reasons. Even the Zumwalt class destroyer has a chance of being put back into production, and the three ships that have been ordered could potentially be upgraded to better represent their originally intended configuration. Naval missile defense capabilities will also be a major funding focus going forward, and increased fast attack submarine production is also likely to be pushed by Trump’s administration. Whether the Navy will maintain an all-nuclear fast attack submarine force remains unclear.
As for the Air Force, Trump has stated that we need more fighter aircraft – though some numbers his team have thrown out don’t add up. Nor have there been any details regarding how unmanned systems will fit into an expanded tactical air fleet. Still, it's likely Trump will try to expand the service’s number of fighter squadrons. This will not necessarily mean more F-35 buys. In fact, Trump has floated cancelling the program during the race, and this mention was among the only comments made about the fate of specific weapon system. Currently, the USAF brass is desperately wanting to add personnel, and this will likely be included in Trump’s overall defense plan when it materialises.
Above all else, it is clear that Trump will push for rapid modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal. Although Trump’s understanding of the Nuclear Triad is highly questionable, he has made no signs that he wants to cut off a leg to save money. As such, his defense plan will likely bolster key weapon system programs such as the B-21 Raider, an Ohio class submarine replacement, next generation nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, and proposed modernization and/or replacement of America’s land-based ballistic missiles. Ballistic missile defense has also been floated as an area where Trump will invest deeply. Though the Navy will likely be the focus of this mission on a theatre level, Trump may push to enhance America’s ICBM defenses located on US territory as well. America’s cyber warfare capabilities have also been mentioned as an area that Trump wants to focus more dollars and manpower on, as well as hardening the homeland to future cyber attacks.
With increases in end strength across the board, this will mean the purchase of more weapons and equipment. Paired with Trump’s comments that we need to “rebuild the military,” and expand our combat capabilities, such an effort will cost massive sums of money – and it is not exactly clear where these funds will come from. So far it is clear he will move to roll back sequester through the end of a two term Presidency, and seeing he has a Republican congress behind him, this will likely happen.
Yet at the same time Trump also says that he wants to tackle the national debt. This would likely become a focus later in his administration, after a rash of debt-heavy spending. Paired with lowering taxes, and claims that he will basically rebuild America’s infrastructure – not to mention keeping entitlements largely in pace as they are—the money to accomplish President-elect Trump's gols and not drastically accelerate America’s already massive $20+ trillion debt will ride on the hope that America can reach economic growth levels not realized for decades. If this growth is not achieved, all the plans above—and many more for that matter—could very well come crashing down later in his tenure.
Factor all this in and it's likely that once Trump gets into office and realizes the costs associated with procuring new military hardware, he will look toward older, and even mothballed weapon systems to help bolster his larger force size goals. Reagan did exactly the same thing after taking office. This means aircraft like the A-10 could be safe from the budgetary axe, while other 4th generation fighters could be upgraded—with some that are currently sitting in the boneyard once again pressed to service. The same can be said for the equipment of every service.
Even if Trump comes through with just a portion of his promises on defense, major defense contractors – some of which have been hit hard by sequester – stand to gain. “Big time.” Yet even though the pie may increase in size significantly under Trump, expect DoD contracts to become much more volatile. An industry forced to eat cost overruns and suffer the outright cancellation of systems that don't perform as promised will be more likely. Also prepare for an attempt at reforming the way the Pentagon spends money – including identifying and eliminating waste and fraud. Even restrictions on Pentagon officials moving to lobbying, or key industry roles shortly after leaving their posts may be put in place.
As for who will head the Pentagon? It looks like Senator Jeff Sessions, a stalwart Trump supporter and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the favorite. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has already issued a memo ordering his staff to begin the transition. As to Carter’s major initiatives, including changing how the Pentagon recruits bright young talent, and his bolstering of the Third Offset Strategy, it's unknown if they will survive under the next administration.
A near certainty under a Trump Presidency is the total overhaul of the Veteran’s Administration. Trump has pounded away on the topic since he first announced his candidacy, and it's a promise he has to keep once in office. This will likely include a total restructuring of the VA's top management, and more of a focus on providing veterans access to healthcare outside of the traditional VA system. Also going after waste and fraud within the VA will be a top priority.
Trump can also be expected to go to congress for more VA funding after taking office and will likely launch major incentives for businesses that hire veterans. He will also likely make the hiring of vets within the federal government an even higher priority than it is today.
Maybe the biggest unknown and inherent risk in a Trump Administration is where he will take America’s most cherished and strategically important alliances. NATO, in particular, faces significant challenges since the reawakening of the Russian bear – and any form of instability within the alliance weakens it dramatically.
This is precisely why words matter. Trump has hinted at backing out of NATO if it is not reformed, and if partner countries do not pay their fair share. That fair share is currently defined as a country dedicating 2% of GDP to their defense capability, a goal which many members don't meet, even after the Obama’s Administration’s prodding. Under President Trump this number could increase, and there may reach a point where an ultimatum in thrown down for partner countries to “pay or else.” We simply don’t know how this will play out – but it's clear that Trump sees the US as the chief subsidizer of Europe’s security, and wants "big league" change.
Will Trump be a pragmatic and strong leader who modernizes NATO and shifts some of its economic burden off the US, or will he be the inadvertent architect of its demise? We'll have to wait and see.
Other key alliances, especially those in Asia, are also entering into uncharted territory under President-elect Trump. He has questioned our presence in South Korea and Japan, and even suggested the idea that both countries arm themselves with nuclear weapons so that the US doesn’t have to risk or invest in defending them. Some may view this as frank and overdue talk that needs to happen. The US has been in South Korea for 60 years, and in Japan for even longer. Both nations are comparatively wealthy, and have their own modern defense forces. Yet our long held position is that the threats we face in Asia, and around the world, are best confronted with a strong presence and partners. Once again the question is, will Trump push the hard issues and change the region for the better, or will he destroy military alliances that took the outcome of wars to build?
There is also the question of how Trump’s foreign economic policy will impact his defense policy abroad. If trade wars are sparked, they could ignite real military conflicts in the regions they affect.
Asia in particular is volatile to such policy shifts – China being the elephant in the room. It is possible that Trump, the self-proclaimed best deal maker around, could bargain with China not just on trade, but also on strategic trade offs. Maybe President Trump would turn a blind eye to China’s extra territorial ambitions in the South China Sea in exchange for Beijing playing hardball with North Korea in an attempt to reign in dictator Kim Jong Un and his nuclear and missile programs.
Trump has said he is willing to inject himself directly into negotiations with leader Kim Jong Un, while at the same time he's said that getting China to put a tight leash on Pyongyang will be the key to change on the Korean Peninsula. With this in mind, Trump knows China is going to want something in exchange. It's this very give and take – sprinkled with moral ambiguity – that will likely be a hallmark of Trump’s foreign policy.
Also expect Trump to immediately attempt to reinvigorate relationships that deteriorated under the Obama Administration – especially those that have to do with fighting terrorism. Expect an embrace of countries like Egypt – a long time ally that the Obama Administration turned away from following the el Sisi government's seizure of power from the Muslim Brotherhood by way of a coup. The military-backed regime takes a very hard line against terrorism, and has entered Moscow’s orbit following the breakdown in ties with the US. While not an ideal partner for Obama, Trump might find good company in Egypt, and will likely reestablish deep political and military ties there alongside Russia.
Trump’s firebrand style and a more inward looking and independent foreign policy may even help the deteriorating relationship between the US and The Philippines. The longtime American ally has begun to turn away from the US and towards China under the leadership of the very outspoken Rodrigo Duterte, a leader who also wants to plot a more individualistic path for his country.
Above all else, expect Trump’s foreign policy to be far less righteous than Obama’s, prioritizing a country’s ability to help fight terrorism or value as a trading partner over the human and democratic rights they offer their people. Not just that, but expect a much more solitary, “go it alone” international strategy. And that brings us to…
The biggest foreign winner of this Presidential election is Vladimir Putin. The guy just can’t seem to lose, and Russian efforts to sway the election in Trump’s favor through hacking clearly had an impact. With Trump, Moscow gets a far less ideological partner to deal with, one that will accept Russia’s will more than his predecessor.
With Trump’s inward looking “America first” policy, strongmen like Putin will likely have a much longer leash to run on. So long as it doesn’t affect the US directly, Russia will be able to wield its military might more freely than in the past – and without the fear of US pushing for sanctions around every turn.
At the same time, there's nothing to say that the two leaders will actually get along. Their relationship has been largely created in the media, and never tested in any way. There is a chance that the much touted long-distance “bromance” between the two leaders could rapidly dissolve, leaving bravado and extreme military posturing to take its place. Here is precisely where the risk lies – both leaders personality types are similar – which could lead to rapid escalation over issues when Trump and Putin are not in agreeance.
Some will say that an unpredictable and aggressive person at the top will be a positive change for the US. It comes down to the whole “better to be feared than liked” adage. It's certainly the case that potential adversaries will think twice about crossing someone who seems ready and willing to put America’s massive military capabilities to use. At the same time, when that massive military includes a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the entire human population, things get much more complicated – and far more volatile.
The nuclear issue may be the most pressing when it comes to a Trump administration. Trump’s “attack twice as hard when attacked” mantra is like a religion within the man’s cult of personality – and even the smallest of bait seems to get his bite. This may work well in business, where the results of your actions are realized by fluctuations in you bank account – but on the world stage, and in regards to an equally well armed nuclear Russia – we will have to wait and see.
The War On Terrorism
Expect Trump to pick up Obama’s targeted assassination playbook and turbocharge it. There are few other options for a leader that wants to fight terrorism militarily on a grand scale without invading countries – or enacting a policy of regime change and nation building in countries where terrorists operate. Additionally, expect the rules of engagement surrounding targeted strikes to loosen up dramatically under Trump. More targets will be hit based on less substantial intelligence and with less regard to the loss of innocent lives. The same can be said for US air operations over Iraq and Syria, both currently conducted under the strictest rules of engagement in history.
On the other hand, expect trump to do the exact opposite as Obama when it comes to GITMO, and even torture. Although “enhanced interrogation techniques” are forbidden by law, Trump has shown a consistent propensity for wanting to bring the tactic back – and he will likely have an Attorney General (Giuliani or even Christie seem likely at this point) that will work with him to make that happen. This potential reality is already sending shockwaves through the intelligence community. As for GITMO, don’t expect it to close its doors anytime soon. In fact, expect the prison – today down to just a few dozen inmates – to be expanded under Trump.
Trump is also likely to drastically increase domestic surveillance in an attempt to catch homegrown terrorists and sleeper cells within the US. This will likely include some level of racial profiling. The Department of Justice will also be far more aggressive when it comes to acting on suspicious persons cases as well. A similar regime will be put in place when it comes to immigration to the US. Expect Trump to use access to visas as a major foreign policy fulcrum for countries that are maybe doing less than they could when it comes to fighting terror.
As for Syria and the battle against ISIS, expect Trump to attempt to leverage Sunni Arab ruled countries into deploying ground forces to remove ISIS from Raqqa and other territory it holds. It is unlikely that Trump will put such a heavy focus on training indigenous forces that Turkey or Russia see as threats. This means Kurdish factions, such as the PKK, and the various groups that make up more moderate forces that are fighting against the Assad regime in Syria could lose US support. In other words, if Trump can coopt Turkey and Arab countries to do the heavy lifting on the ground in Syria, these groups that Obama's Pentagon has fostered tighter ties with via US special forces will likely suffer.
As for Assad, it is very unlikely that Trump will follow Obama’s demand of regime change in Syria. Instead he will try to work with the Russians and other regional powers into removing him from office over time. Although I doubt this will be a big sticking point. In the end, Trump could “trade” pushing Assad out of power for other concessions from Russia.
Trump has consistently maligned the Iranian nuclear deal, calling it “the worst deal of its kind, ever.” Will this mean that he will rip it up once in office? Debatable; as the alternative could mean war in a region that is already embroiled in conflict. Not just that, but much of the damage has already been done in regards to what the US has given up in return for Iran putting their nuclear program on a decade-long hiatus. Still, Trump purports to be a strong supporter of Israel, and will enter the office with expectations of a hard line towards Iran.
The vast majority of Iran’s nuclear material has been moved to Russia, as outlined by the deal. Meanwhile Russia has become much closer with Iran, and the two view each other as strategic partners in the region to some degree. But to Russia, a cozy relationship with Washington is worth far more than one with Iran. As such, it's possible that Trump works a deal with Russia to play ball with the US on Iran if, say, the US plays ball with Russia on Syria. This could include slapping sanctions back on Iran (the international nature of the original agreement would make doing so complicated) or limiting Iranian access to conventional arms from Russia.
Trump could also impose unilateral sanctions on Iran, and proceed with arming Sunni gulf states to the teeth with conventional weapons. Meanwhile he can tell the international partners who signed the Iranian deal that they can stick to it if they want. So long as Russia does not return Iran’s nuclear material, there will be time before the Iranians can reconstitute their program to the point where breakout capability is imminent.
In general, instead of reaching out diplomatically to Iran, Trump will likely rely on threats of conventional and cyber attack if Iran does not bend to Washington’s will. Trump will inherit a large and potent arsenal of cyber weapons particularly tailored to attacking Iran, and it's likely they will be used if Trump thinks he needs to check Tehran. In the end, relations between the US and Iran will almost certainly degrade significantly under a Trump administration – and tensions in Persian Gulf are likely to rise significantly while the odds of a major war in the region will also increase.
War On Drugs
Trump’s administration may be a soft flashback to the '80s when it comes to America’s never ending and arguably futile war on drugs. As a candidate, he held up the heroin epidemic in America’s northeast as a reminder of how we are losing that war. And, although he has mainly pointed to building a wall along the US-Mexico border as his primary countermeasure against drug imports into the US, his anti-drug policy won’t likely end there. Even the legalized recreational marijuana trade within the US will likely be under direct fire from the Trump administration's Justice Department.
Trump's proposed wall along the US-Mexico border, deportations and his plan to renegotiate NAFTA will also likely erode the relationship between the US, Mexico and other countries in Latin America. This could negatively impact security cooperation including joint counter-narcotics and counter-terror operations.
The American Message
Trump will be under incredible pressure to curb his trademark unfiltered, off-the-cuff and unpredictable speaking nature. Similarly, his inner-circle will be pressing him to stick to the teleprompter. His aids know what is at stake when it comes to a potential misstep on the world stage, and hopefully he will too.
We've seen this interplay in the later part of the Presidential race, when Trump turned away from a populist standup routine to speeches read off the teleprompter – and the results were clearly positive for his political career. Still, there are many times when prepared statements simply don't work, like press conferences with other world leaders. Real danger exists here, not just from saying something that could literally create an international crisis, but with an inability to answer specific and pointed questions. If Trump appears to have a shallow knowledge base on world issues – issues that his decisions greatly impact – it will be viewed as a major and exploitable weakness by foreign powers. As such, Trump will have to finally do his homework on key subjects, or he'll simultaneously invite untold risk to America’s stability while degrading respect for the office he's been elected to.
Contact the author at Tyler@thedrive.com