Trump’s Unremarkable Defense Playbook
In a commentary published in Aviation Week on Inauguration Day, I described “signposts and metrics” of force posture, defense spending, and acquisition management that I would be using to gauge the true magnitude and direction of change that would emerge from the volatile potential of the Trump team’s imprint on national defense. One year on, what do these guideposts tell me about the Trump defense policy?
Forces. The new administration has had its most significant defense-policy impact on the posture of combat deployments. My guidepost concerned US force levels in Afghanistan, which at the time President Trump took office totaled 8,400 US personnel. Following a summer-long debate testing the President’s “instinct to pull out”, he announced a recommitment to Afghanistan and authorized Secretary Mattis to double-down the forces assigned to it. By late-fall, General Nicholson had increased US forces to 14,000, intensified the airstrike campaign by four-fold, and gained NATO’s agreement to contribute 3,000 more of its soldiers to the mission.
Although these increments of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan are very small in proportion the total force, they are a meaningful indicator of a surprising enthusiasm for military activism which the Trump Administration is imprinting on national defense. “America First does not mean America alone,” wrote the national security advisor and director of the National Economic Council of the president’s surprisingly orthodox view of America’s role in the world. “It is a commitment to protecting and advancing our vital interests while also fostering cooperation and strengthening relationships with our allies and partners.”
Budgets. The most ineffectual defense-policy initiative of the Trump team concerns the budget. My guidepost of defense spending was the current-dollar total (“Base” plus “OCO”) of discretionary DoD budget authority in 2017 and 2018, the baseline of which in the Obama Administration’s plans summed to $1,208 billion ($589 billion for 2017 and $619 billion for 2018). By comparison, the measure of Trump’s impact on defense spending for 2017 is straightforward, and small: Following the Omnibus Appropriations Act for 2017 that became law in May, DoD had $599 billion of total discretionary budget authority, an increase of about $10 billion, or 1.7 percent, over the Obama baseline. Trump’s impact on defense spending in 2018 is more indeterminate, both because Congress has failed to enact a full-year appropriation, and because the defense budgets proposed by the administration ($631 billion) and approved by the House ($658 billion) and Senate ($646 Senate) all exceed by more than $40 billion the statutory limits imposed by the Budget Control Act.
Assuming even the smallest of these budgets can attract the nine Democratic votes in the Senate that will be required to pass it into law, it still would enable only a ~2 percent increase over the Obama baseline. That’s a perceptible increase but effectively flat in real terms, and well short of the 4-to-6 percent annual increases that Secretary Mattis has testified are needed just to sustain the US military’s existing posture.
Acquisition. His December 2016 contretemps with Boeing and Lockheed Martin over the costs of their aircraft notwithstanding, Trump’s impact on acquisition management has been imperceptible. The guidepost of change I’ve been watching concerns the unit cost of the F-35A variant, which, when LRIP Lot 10 was announced in early-February, came in at the entirely unsurprising price of $94.6 million. Since then, indications persist that achieving still more substantial reductions to the aircraft’s price is proving difficult. The program’s new manager, Vice Admiral Winter, proclaimed in September that he was expecting agreement on a lower-priced Lot 11 as soon as mid-October, but the whole year ended with no such announcement. In early-December, Under Secretary Ellen Lord told the Senate Armed Services Committee that she has had to launch a new “deep dive” into the costs of the F-35, a familiar preoccupation of her predecessors. Indeed, since Inauguration Day, any attention the White House has given to acquisition management or defense-industrial policy has shifted its aim from costs and efficiencies to jobs and industrial security.
Revisiting these guideposts, I am struck by how modestly President Trump and Secretary Mattis have altered the defense posture they inherited. Although it may be too early to tell reliably for the long haul of his term, the 2017 indications about Trump defense are that he employs military force in orthodox strokes, holds no special power with which to break the grip of deadlock over defense spending, and regards acquisition management as a lever on domestic interests rather than military value.
However ironic and perhaps even welcome, team Trump turned in an unremarkable year for defense posture.