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Foreign Policy

Trump Administration’s Possible Military Policy

Jan 19 , 2017
  • Fan Gaoyue

    Guest Professor at Sichuan University, Former Chief Specialist at PLA Academy of Military Science

On Jan 20 President-elect Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. Many people are wondering about what kind of military policy the Trump Administration might adopt. If we look at what Trump said in the presidential campaign and what he has done since he became a president-elect, the Trump Administration’s likely military policy becomes obvious.

What did Trump say about the U.S. military and what has he done?

During the presidential campaign Trump promised to: “Strengthen the military so that it’s so big and so strong and so great that nobody’s going to mess with us”, “Leave troops in Afghanistan because it’s such ‘a mess.’ “Protect Israel.” And “increase U.S. military presence in the East and South China Seas”, “Find great generals -- like the next Gen. Patton or Gen. MacArthur”, “Invest more heavily in programs that help military veterans transition back to civilian life”, and so on. To materialize what he promised in the campaign Trump began to select his cabinet members. He has named Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist, and nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) as CIA director, ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser, retired Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense, retired general John Kelly as secretary of Homeland Security… The sum is a cabinet of chief executives and generals who are either too closely associated with the “alt-right” movement or hard-line conservatives.

On Dec 1, 2016,Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon wrote a memo to employees in his office, which outlines the incoming Trump Administration’s top “defense priorities” and identifies defeating the Islamic State, eliminating budget caps, developing a new cyber-security strategy, and finding greater efficiencies as the president-elect’s primary concerns. The four-point list of priorities was conveyed by Mira Ricardel, co-leader of Trump’s Pentagon transition team.

What kind of military policy might Trump’s Administration advance?

Deducing from the cabinet members Trump selected and the priorities he dictated, Trump Administration’s military policy might include:

Eliminating the Sequestration Plan and increase defense budget. Trump pledged to “eliminate budget caps and rebuild the exhausted US military” in the campaign and lists “eliminating budget caps” in a defense memo, which means that he would eliminate the Sequestration Plan and increase national defense budget. What’s more, both Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Representative Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, support budgets increase by saying that the proposed FY 2017 budget is at least $40 billion too little.

Expanding the size of U.S. forces to cover a “three-theater” demand. Both McCain and Thornberry hold that military strength requires both quantity and quality, increasing quality alone not being enough. Conservative and centrist think tanks have also proposed larger force structures. The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and some other think tanks have recommended a large expansion: a regular Army of 600,000, a Marine Corps over 200,000, a Navy of 12 carrier battle groups and at least 350 ships, an Air Force of at least 6,000 total airplanes, with a minimum of 1,500 tactical fighter aircraft. These recommendations cater to Trump’s thinking and lay a theoretical foundation for Trump to expand the U.S. armed forces.

Demanding its allies to increase defense budget and reduce US defense commitment. Trump said clearly in the campaign that allies should pay their share of their own defense. Now it is time for him to fulfill his words. In Europe he might demand NATO member states to increase their defense budget to 2% of their GDP (at present among the 28 member states only five meet the standard). In the Asia-Pacific region Trump might demand Japan and South Korea to pay all the expenses of the U.S. forces stationed there (at present Japan and South Korea pay 54% and 20% respectively) and seek to complete OPCON transfer to put these responsibilities in the hands of Koreans.

Regarding China as the greatest potential threat and increase U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific Region. Trump may put Obama’s “rebalancing” strategy on the shelf but the U.S. position of regarding China as the greatest potential threat will not change. He will continue to fulfill the deployment of 60% of the U.S. Navy and Air Force to the Asia-Pacific region and perhaps will send some Coast Guard there as well. Thanks to the improvement of relations between the Philippines and China and no joint statement issued by ASEAN countries upon the so-called “International Arbitration”, fundamental changes have taken place in the South China Sea. Trump might pivot to the East China Sea and Taiwan Strait to challenge China’s national interests together with Japan.

Resuming the new military reform to perfect the U.S. military system. In November 2015 the Department of Defense (DoD) established a series of working groups to assess key issue areas of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, thus formally initiating a new military reform called “Goldwater-Nichols 2.0”. In March 2016 the working groups delivered research reports to put forward reform recommendations. However, the DoD has not made any decision on the recommendations. The Trump Administration perhaps will resume “Goldwater- Nichols 2.0” reform so as to improve the working efficiency and global integrated operational capabilities of the US military headquarters and forces.

What impact might the Trump Administration’s military policy generate?

Trump Administration’s possible military policy might produce the following results:

The US military superiority will be further consolidated and enhanced. Increasing the national defense budget will help the DoD fully implement its Third Offset Strategy to consolidate and enhance its established defense technological advantages. The expansion of the U.S. forces and resumption of military reform will strengthen the U.S. military in quantity and quality.

The U.S. leverage over its allies will be weakened. Contribution and leverage are in direct proportion. If the U.S. pays more for its allies’ defense, it will have more leverage over its allies, and vice versa. Therefore weaker leverage over its allies will be a natural outcome if Trump Administration demands that its allies pay more for their national defense.

The Trump Administration’s military policy will give rise to an arms race. The increase of national defense budget and expansion of force size will enlarge its military superiority over other world powers such as Russia, China and India, which will break the strategic balance among them. To strike a new strategic balance, the other world powers would have to invest more in their national defense, thus starting a new arms race.

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