Donald Trump: A Dispassionate Look at his Military Plans

Most of the initial comments about Donald Trump’s surprising electoral victory last week have been of the emotional kind. Here is a more dispassionate look at what his declared policies mean for the defence sector.

Donald Trump’s comments on NATO and his questions over the cost of security guarantees to allies and partners have led many to believe that the President-elect is an isolationist and that this will be bad news for foreign policy and defence. He is certainly prepared to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable.

However, much of what he has said on the cost of NATO, on concerns over the Iran nuclear deal and on the number of US military personnel overseas has already been stated by senior US military and Department of Defense (DoD) officials in the past. It indeed chimes with concerns that many allies have had from Riyadh to London, from Kabul to Jerusalem, with the US stance on defence matters.

His 7 September National Security speech ‘Peace through Strength’ in Philadelphia is an important starting point for anyone wanting to understand the direction Trump’s administration will take. And, if understood correctly, should reassure rather than frighten most of Washington’s key allies. While much of Trump’s rhetoric on other matters has been frankly unpalatable, for defence this should represent a return to business as usual and a welcome one at that.  Here is a summary of what he said and what it might mean for European and other allies.

On America’s support for its allies, Trump has not said he will back out of NATO, but he has rebuked those who want US assurances and still do not even meet their NATO 2% target. And he may be right. We should not collectively risk a Third World War because certain nations – particularly those bordering Russia – can’t even commit to put in place the most basic of defences. Germany, too, will find Trump in no mood for compromise, despite Chancellor Angela Merkel’s commitments earlier this month to work towards meeting the 2% target.

However, what goes around comes around: the US will need to accept that the Europeans, Japanese, Koreans and the Gulf States will look to build and protect their own defence industries as they rebuild their national capabilities, which will hurt US industrial interests. Indeed they have already started along that route.

The German White Paper on defence, for example, makes it clear that it will seek to build up European Defence Industrial capacity through the new EU R&D fund and its Framework Nation Concept, which seeks to partner larger European nations with smaller European nations in order to help them modernise their militaries.

For the UK, which is disengaging from the EU, it may be necessary to buy concessions into the European defence programme or seek its own national defence industrial strategy. Moreover, considering that the UK negotiated Tier One status on the F-35 programme by proving it had better technology than the US in key areas, a UK National Defence Strategy should also be a priority as it gives Britain greater negotiating power with allies for future collaborative programmes.

On the Middle East and North Africa, Trump claims that the outgoing administration’s record was disastrous: pulling out from Iraq; intervention in Libya; support for opposition movements in Egypt and Syria without proper heed of the potential consequences for those nations. And here, Trump does agree with Russian President Vladimir Putin, although his approach may differ. In his Peace through Strength speech Trump said:

My foreign policy will emphasize diplomacy, not destruction … Gradual reform, not sudden and radical change, should be our guiding objective in that region.

He has also stated that he will ask his generals for a plan on tackling Daesh within 30 days of taking office. Fortunately, for the DoD (and the coalition), Daesh is on the back foot in Iraq and Syria, so the existing campaign to free Raqqa and Mosul will probably reach a satisfactory conclusion by the time Trump is in the White House on 20 January. Therefore, what the president has in store remains to be seen. 

The US may try a short-term ‘surge’ in order to cement successes in Iraq and Syria; US generals have certainly  been extremely worried about the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and, given the numbers of Afghan migrants looking for work in Europe, a combined military and economic uplift would be sensible. The UK’s Department for International Development has promised a new approach, looking at combining aid with projects to stimulate the economy and this will be vital in Afghanistan and parts of the Sahel if migration is to be slowed.

More broadly on defence matters, Trump is clear: 

We currently have the smallest Army since 1940. The Navy is among the smallest it has been since 1915. And the Air Force is the smallest it has been since 1947.

Trump has committed to increase the DoD budget, which would be a welcome relief to a department unduly hit by the effects of sequestration. He wants an army of 540,000, up from 490,000; a US Marine Corps of 36 battalions rather than 23 today; a navy of 350 ships and submarines – up from 276 today; an air force of at least 1,200 – up from 1,113 today; and a state-of- the-art missile defence system – starting with 22 Navy Cruisers modernised at a cost of $220 million each.

Trump proposes that much of this increased spending will come from increased efficiencies in government administration, although new financial commitments are clearly being envisaged.

In short, there is much for both US allies and adversaries to think about over the next couple of months and certainly there are many difficult security and foreign policy challenges ahead. However, for most of us who are used to the US achieving peace through strength, this might just be a return to familiar territory.


Elizabeth Quintana

Associate Fellow

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