Provided he meant any of it, here’s what to expect over the next four years.
Donald Trump is now commander-in-chief elect of the most powerful military known to humankind. Trump’s Pentagon controls 10 Army combat divisions, three Marine divisions, 272 Navy ships, thousands of combat aircraft, and 1,376 nuclear weapons, making him the most heavily armed former real estate developer in history.
Yet as powerful as America’s military is, Trump’s pledged to make it even more so. Trump wants an even larger military than we have now, modernized and in some cases larger than at any time since Vietnam. Trump has vowed to make a military “so strong and powerful and so respected, we’re not going to have to nuke anybody.” At the same time he’s has pledged to reduce the Pentagon’s military footprint abroad, hinting he would close bases in regions where allies have underspent on defense and over-relied on the United States.
It’s also important to keep American military spending in perspective. The USA spends more than two and a half times more on defense than China, and about ten times as much as Russia. There’s a good argument for outspending our rivals to maintain a military edge over them, especially when both are totalitarian countries making unwanted advances toward their neighbors. Still, the U.S. has a very healthy lead over both countries combined, now and at least for another half decade. Furthermore, if Trump is successful in getting America’s allies to pay their fair share of the defense burden, the yuge spending increases Trump has planned may be unnecessary.
How much of an increase are we talking about, and how yuge is yuge? Every indication is that Trump’s defense spending would increase defense spending by a considerable margin—perhaps as much as $100 billion annually in today’s dollars. Trump has promised to unlock $50 billion a year by killing 2013’s federal budget sequestration, but the rest of the increase would have to come through taxed economic growth or other federal programs—or both. In the latter case, he’ll have to sell two arguments—why defense spending needs to be increased, and why it should be at the expense of other federal spending.
There are three big questions trying to discern Trump’s defense policy. Does he have any actual opinions on national security? Does he mean anything he’s said so far? Does he have any idea what he’s doing? Right now, the President elect’s vagueness has seemingly put everything—and nothing—on the table.
Trump has promised increases in troop strength across the Pentagon, campaigning to reverse the post-Afghanistan downsizing of the U.S. Army, which is scheduled to drop to 460,000 active duty soldiers in 2017. Trump wants an Army of 540,000, a number that according to his campaign web site the Army needs to “execute current missions,” despite what the Army itself might actually say.
The Army’s metric for combat strength is in the form of brigade combat teams (BCTs). Each BCT has between 3,000 to 5,000 personnel, and up to three hundred tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, Stryker armored vehicles, and howitzers. Trump’s boost would likely take the Army from a current 30 BCTs to roughly 36. To put that into perspective, at the height of the “surge” 13 Army BCTs were deployed to Iraq.
Although well meaning, Trump’s emphasis on manpower could turn out to be an albatross dangling around the Army’s neck. The Army could get by with 500,000 troops, but more important than fully realizing Trump’s manpower goal are the Army’s efforts to revitalize its tank and infantry fighting vehicle fleets, for whom replacements are crucial and overdue.
Trump has vowed to increase the size of the Navy from 272 to 350 warships. His campaign web site says the navy is “among the smallest it has been since World War I,” which is true in absolute terms,, but it’s worth remembering that we now have 10 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, which is 10 more than we had in World War 1, and nine more than than the nearest naval power (France). It also includes 10 large amphibious assault ships, 22 cruisers, 76 destroyers, and 52 attack submarines. The U.S. Navy is, far and away, the world’s dominant naval power.
Ideally the Navy would like to see more attack submarines to maintain a decisive lead over Russian and Chinese fleets, while the Marines would like to see more amphibious ships like the America and San Antonio class ships. What the Navy is really missing is smaller ships on the low-end like the controversial Littoral Combat Ship. Those could be built in large numbers but hull and propulsion problems, as well as lack of progress on equipment sets allowing them to carry out anti-surface, anti-submarine, and anti-mine missions make it difficult to justify buying more of them.
Trump’s Marine Corps would grow to from 24 to 36 infantry battalions. The Marines, which have recently stood up new units for Central Command, Africa, Norway and the Black Sea region, could use the manpower—but is it too much? That’s enough to equip four full-size marine divisions, more than any time since the Vietnam War, and would make the Marines approximately one-third the size of the new, bigger US Army.
The Marines don’t necessarily need more manpower, but they do need money for operations, maintenance and training. Marine Corps aviation readiness, to use just one benchmark, is low and accidents are at a 5-year high. The Marines also need new a fleet of new amphibious vehicles to replace the aging Assault Amphibious Vehicle and CH-53K heavy lift helicopters to replace older, increasingly difficult to maintain -E models.
Trump’s plan for the Air Force is vague. Trump’s web site says he will “Provide the U.S. Air Force with the 1,200 fighter aircraft they need.” That’s weird, because the Air Force currently has about 1,590 aircraft, including F-22 Raptors, F-15C and F-15E Eagles, and F-16 Fighting Falcons. It’s likely that number is a reference to the Air Force’s F-35A Joint Strike Fighter buy, which is actually pegged at 1,763 of the multi-role fighters.
The Air Force does need a cash injection in other areas. At the same time it will be buying the F-35A it also plans to purchase the new T-X jet trainer, KC-46A Pegasus aerial refueling tankers, the B-21 Raider strategic bomber, and the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent—a replacement for the Minuteman III nuclear missile. Without a major increase in the Air Force’s budget it is likely some—and possibly all—of these programs will end up underfunded.
Unlike the Army or Marines, who are usually described in terms of personnel strength, the Air Force is often described in terms of numbers of airframes. But departing U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh has warned that the service is about “40,000 to 60,000” personnel short of what it needs to carry out existing missions. Trump will need to decide whether to give the Air Force more people or fewer missions.
One thing Trump’s defense platform doesn’t mention: nukes. The New START Treaty (or “the Startup”, as candidate Trump called it) imposes limits on the number of intercontinental nuclear missiles, missile submarines, and bombers both sides can have, as well as limits on actual warheads in the field.
As of October, the U.S.A. has 681 land-based missiles, submarine based missiles, and bombers operational and ready for World War III. It has 1,367 nuclear warheads deployed across those platforms, many of which carry two or more warheads.
Trump told the New York Times in March that “we have nuclear arsenals which are in very terrible shape.” Which isn’t entirely accurate, as all three elements of the nuclear triad (hopefully Trump has familiarized himself with what that is at this point) are in the process of being modernized or replaced. Efforts are afoot to replace aging Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with the new Columbia class submarine, Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles with the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, and the B-21 Raider bomber will replace older bombers in Air Force service. The cost of overhauling the U.S. nuclear arsenal could cost up to one trillion dollars.
Trump has claimed nukes are the “single biggest problem” facing the world, as well as the proliferation of nuclear weapons.. His affinity for Russia and Vladimir Putin may herald a deal between the two countries. Both countries are developing or fielding new missiles, bombers and submarines, but the difference is that Russia really, really can’t afford them. Russia’s defense budget was $51 billion in 2016, or less than one-eleventh that of the United States, and is set to drop twelve percent in 2017. A new arms control deal limiting the number of nuclear weapons could make both men look very good while just confirming the inevitable.
America’s vast network of military bases abroad could also be cut. Trump has stated he is dissatisfied with how little countries like Japan and South Korea were paying the U.S. to help with their defense, and has suggested he could shutter bases in both countries. He has claimed that NATO is “obsolete” and that its member states don’t contribute enough to collective defense, indicating he’s willing to walk away from the alliance—and American bases in Europe—if the rest of NATO doesn’t pony up.
The base issue however cuts both ways, something Trump may not be aware of. Many are dual-use bases that not only help defend foreign countries but project American power around the world. American bases in Germany, for example, defend Europe but also contribute to the fight against the Islamic State. If Trump were to close Misawa Air Base in Japan, he would have to find another way to put two squadrons of fighters and an air base into Northern Asia, and the only way left to do that is via very expensive aircraft carriers. If Trump follows through with his promise to pull back, America must be willing to spend on alternatives, or walk away from some of its overseas interests altogether.
Trump’s boost in troop numbers for the Army and Marines, warship increases for the Navy, and increase in fighters for the Air Force is all very interesting, but the big question is: what is this bigly military meant for if he makes nice with Russia and pulls away from our NATO and Asian allies? Trump is missing a national security strategy that justifies these numbers. Trump’s military needs an objective to march to, and a plan on how to get there. Instead of talking the goal and the route, Trump is talking about how many troops will be doing the marching and what kind of boots they’ll be wearing.
Just two days after the election, Donald Trump spoke by phone with South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Trump reportedly told President Park, “We are with you and we will not waver.”
As soon as things are starting, things are changing.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense writer with bylines in Popular Mechanics, The Daily Beast, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, Japan Times, and VICE News. He is based in San Francisco.