Is President Donald Trump really a defense hawk? A simple question, but one that is quite difficult — frustratingly so — to answer. That’s because his public utterances and his actual policies are so often contradictory. Trump is a man more of instinct and in-the-moment feeling, rather than policy. This makes him flexible, but it also makes him difficult to pin down when it comes to what he really wants.
In the first place, what does President Trump want from his military? In the plainest terms, he wants to “make America safe again,” as a corollary to his favorite chestnut, “make America great again.” Making America “safe again” appears to mean strengthening public safety and homeland security — expanding police powers; enhancing border and transportation security; leading a crackdown on illegal immigration; building a wall along the US-Mexican border, etc. — as well as building up the military.
This still leaves much to be desired when it comes to why the Trump administration wants a stronger military or how it plans to go about creating one. “Peace through strength” is a classic Republican/conservative knee-jerk response — and therefore not a particularly surprising position coming from Trump. At the same time, it does not make his policies any clearer.
Trump is fascinated by ‘raw military might’
A recent article in the New York Times does an excellent job laying out Trump’s attitude toward the military. The author, Max Fisher, contends that Trump is “fascinated with raw military might, which he sees as synonymous with America’s standing in the world,” as well as being “a tool to coerce powerful rivals.” Fisher argues that Trump’s military thinking is almost entirely built around the concept of “winning,” and that therefore the military’s “primary role” is winning wars by winning battles.
Aside from these blanket statements, however, Trump is “little-focused” on such details as military strategy or priorities. Rather, it is the sheer size of the military — and therefore the size of the defense budget — that is most important to him. Military force is basically “performative” and a “symbol of strength.” As such, a large military, outfitted with the most advanced conventional and nuclear forces, is viewed as an end in itself. If there is a “Trump defense strategy,” it is centered solely on military spending and acquisitions.
Consequently, Trump wants to build up the military for its own sake, regardless of why or what he intends to use it for. This is evident in his call for a 10% increase (US$54 billion) in defense spending for the 2018 fiscal year. Trump’s national security budget for 2018 calls for $603 billion in spending (including funding for nuclear weapons programs, under the department of energy), along with $65 billion in contingency funding to cover overseas wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. In addition, Trump ran for president on the promise of repealing the defense sequester, which imposed automatic cuts in defense budget outlays.
Substantial boost proposed in defense materiel
Moreover, Trump has plans for substantial increases in defense acquisitions. He has called for a 350-ship navy (up from the current 274 ships), including up to three additional aircraft carriers. In addition, the administration has called for a 1,200-fighter air force (meaning the addition of at least 100 more combat aircraft), and 12 additional Marine Corps battalions, as well as “tens of thousands” of more soldiers.
On the other hand, there are indications that a Trump presidency may not be the golden ticket that the military may be expecting. Trump has indicated that he is suspicious of the US military-industrial complex. To a large extent, this distrust is a manifestation of the populist-nationalist sentiments that permeate the Steve Bannon wing of the administration. According to this viewpoint, the enormous military-industrial complex is a key element of the so-called “deep state” — a vast, “entrenched network” of government bureaucrats, intelligence officers, professional military, etc., that is inherently hostile to Trump and his anti-government/anti-elitist policies.
Given such a situation, Trump believes that he can — that he must — take on the military-industrial complex and subsequently rein in its influence. Consequently, the administration is unlikely to write a blank check for the military, as indicated by some of his tweets and other remarks. He has tweeted that the cost for a new pair of Air Force One presidential aircraft was “out of control” at $4 billion, insinuating that he might cancel the order. In addition, Trump has complained about the “tremendous costs and cost overruns” in the F-35 jet-fighter program, hinting that he might prefer the Super Hornet combat aircraft instead.
In addition, his 2018 budget request for arms procurement is rather modest. Yes, it includes requirements for 70 F-35s and 14 Super Hornets, one littoral-combat ship, two Virginia-class submarines, and two destroyers. But this was basically the same as Obama administration requests for the last few years. Any expansion of the military is likely to wait until later on in Trump’s administration.
A president disengaged from military policy
Moreover, Trump has so far been disengaged from the process of military policy. Apart from selecting former Marine Corps General James Mattis to be his secretary of defense, he has made few political appointments to the DoD; most slots remain unfilled, including several key undersecretary and assistant secretary positions.
In fact, Trump seems quite prepared to let Mattis and “the Generals” pretty much run things at the Pentagon, with little input from the White House. As noted in a recent article in The New Yorker, Trump seems uninterested in how the Pentagon operates, more or less deferring to the military leadership. Yet when things go sour, as with the raid in Yemen in January which resulted in one US Navy SEAL being killed, Trump openly blamed it on the generals.
What it all comes down to is that Trump likes “winning” and he supports the US military when it “wins.” But he is also ready and willing to hang the armed forces out to dry when it pleases him.
Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The opinions expressed here are his own.