Don’t forget just how much the battlefield has dramatically changed in the past year. ISIS holds far less territory and military is a fraction in number and capability of what it was; while Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian coalition forces have kicked ass from Ramadi to the ring around Raqqa, backed by thousands of American airstrikes, elite force raids, and advise-and-assist help. So what comes next? Last week, CENTCOM’s Gen. Joe Votel posted a think tank paper that looks beyond that battlefield to worry about the “virtual caliphate” — the idea of ISIS — spreading elsewhere. Across northern Africa, Americans have engaged terrorist groups and helped local forces and also could be asked to crank up the dial on all of it. So, who will get deployed in 2017? How many American KIAs will Tampa mourn this year? Check back about 60 days after the inauguration.
And NATO. The weekend before becoming president, Trump once again called the 60-year alliance “obsolete,” repeating a line many thought had been left behind on the campaign trail. He’d walked that back last year, though he said that he would press NATO members to pay their pledged contributions, or else maybe they shouldn’t expect a defense from the United States. Then his people walked that back, saying he would honor America’s Article V treaty obligation. (Though Trump’s history suggests he may view a treaty as little more than a deal he can break and re-negotiate at will.) In almost the same breath, he said NATO was “important.” It’s not clear that he knows that NATO has shifted its focus since 2001 to engage terror organizations — that it was the backbone of Afghanistan operations, and that more recently it has stiffened defenses against Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Trump’s sloppy talk had real effects. It has angered allies and completely changed the way 4-star generals and Pentagon leaders communicated with the American people. Last year, when Defense One asked Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford if NATO was indeed “obsolete,” he tore apart the notion as ridiculous. After all, NATO was essential in the Afghanistan War he led as its commanding general. But Dunford didn’t know the comment came from his potential future boss, and he was livid for feeling he’d been duped. But the public deserves as much as the president to know what the U.S. military leaders think of NATO. There’s too wide a gap from Trump’s dismissive backhands to the total admiration and respect of NATO from the military and intelligence communities working through it to defend the alliance.
Nobody predicted how large Putin would loom over Washington. Like an oversized moon, everyone’s talking about him, but again, what will Trump do? In the runup to his inauguration, reports surfaced that Trump’s first foreign visit would be with Putin, and that he may offer to reduce sanctions if Moscow reduced nuclear weapons — changing previous policy that tried to keep those two issues separate. What does it all mean for you groundpounders, flyers, and sailors? Obama has surged American forces to NATO’s Eastern front. We’re all wondering if Trump will pull U.S. troops back from NATO’s Russia border. Military communities like Fort Carson, Colo., are already keeping a very high tempo of deployments as forces rotate to Europe. Will they continue? Trump said he’d be tough on Russia, but his soft approach to Putin is well-chronicled. Again, we’ll see.
In Asia, all that’s clear is Trump wants to deal tough with Beijing on economics, and that he blasted Obama for allowing China to build islands into military bases in the South China Sea. So what’s Trump going to do about it? Blow them out of the water? Shake a harder first? Shift the already-stretched Navy from Europe and the Mediterranean over to Asia? Nobody knows.
The very size and composition of entire U.S. military and Defense Department is in the air as well. Trump repeatedly claimed the military had been “decimated” under Obama and pledged to “rebuild” it. Do you know what that means? We don’t. We have heard a lot of speculation, most of it just saying there’ll be more: more soldiers, more Marines, more ships, more fighters, more drones, more intelligence. But those are medium and long-term ideas that require massive amounts of deliberation, planning — and committee votes. Where will the money come from? The Defense Department already is bound to a spending cap, thanks to the Budget Control Act, so it’s all bluster unless Congress eliminates those restrictions (via some mega-budget deal on taxes and spending well beyond national security strategy needs).
Still, the GOP-controlled Congress seems eager to oblige. Before Trump even made it to town, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced a bill to increase defense spending, almost daring House Speaker Paul Ryan to block it.
Besides what Trump brings, technologists are wondering if he’ll continue the Obama administration's aggressive push to draw the private sector and Silicon Valley into the national security business. Aviation geeks are aghast at Trump’s tweets insisting he’ll drive down the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s cost (temporarily wiping billions from Lockheed Martin’s stock prices) and reconsider the use of F/A-18 Super Hornets. It all means no program is safe, no contract, no piece of hardware and, seriously, nobody’s job in the entire defense industry. Trump clearly wants to be involved in those decisions. How much will the reality of the Oval Office permit it? Again, we’ll see.
The President Trump era is about to begin. Much of what happens will depend on him. But there’s a good chance, knowing how hard it is to change anything in the Defense Department, that 2017 will be year of big changes or more of the same — which, with this much uncertainty in the air, might not be such a bad thing. The State of Defense is one big wait-and-see.
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